Israeli government dissolves, triggers new elections

JERUSALEM — The Israeli Knesset spokesman’s office confirmed early Wednesday (local time) the country is heading to its fourth elections in two years.

A deadline for parliament to pass a new budget passed at midnight, forcing the Knesset to dissolve and automatically triggering new elections March 23.

The failure to reach a budget brings about the collapse of Israel’s current government. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his main rival, Benny Gantz, formed their coalition in May to take on the challenges of the coronavirus crisis.

But their partnership has been plagued by mistrust and infighting. Opinion polls indicate that if elections were held today, Netanyahu would face a tough threat from a trio of disgruntled former allies who share his hard-line ideology but object to his personal style of governing.

Whether Netanyahu can fend off these challengers or not, the country is almost certain to be led by a right-wing politician opposed to concessions to the Palestinians, complicating hopes by the incoming Biden administration to restart peace talks.

Netanyahu and Gantz formed their coalition after battling to a stalemate in three consecutive elections. They said they were putting aside their personal rivalry to form an “emergency” government focused on guiding the country through the health and economic crises caused by the pandemic. Under the deal, Gantz assumed the new role of “alternate prime minister” and was assured he would trade places with Netanyahu next November in a rotation agreement halfway through their term.

At the heart of this dysfunctional relationship is Netanyahu’s corruption trial. Gantz has accused Netanyahu of undermining their power-sharing deal in hopes of remaining in office throughout his trial, which is to kick into high gear in February when witnesses begin to take the stand. He and other critics believe Netanyahu ultimately hopes to form a new government capable of appointing loyalists who could grant him immunity or dismiss the charges against him.

“A criminal defendant with three indictments is dragging the country to a fourth round of elections,” Blue and White said Tuesday night. “If there wasn’t a trial, there would be a budget and there wouldn’t be elections.”

Netanyahu is charged with fraud, breach of trust and accepting bribes in a series of scandals in which he is accused of offering favors to powerful media figures in exchange for positive news coverage about him and his family.

“The ongoing political crisis will continue as long as Mr. Netanyahu remains prime minister and no government can be formed without him,” said Yohanan Plesner, a former lawmaker who is president of the Israel Democracy Institute.

“I think it is quite safe to assume that this won’t end until either Mr. Netanyahu is replaced or if he finds a way, through legislation or political maneuvering, to either put his trial on hold or suspend it altogether,” he said.