Written by David M. Halbfinger and Isabel Kershner
Having failed to form a government after two elections, Israel barreled toward a record third on Wednesday, extending the political deadlock that has paralyzed the country for nearly a year and assuring at least three more months of bitter, divisive campaigning and government dysfunction.
And with the country hopelessly divided over the fate of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has been indicted on three counts of corruption, there is little indication that the third election will be any more decisive than the first two.
Israel’s inability to break the logjam has raised questions about the political system its citizens often boast is the only democracy in the Middle East. A democracy often compared to that of Britain or the United States is now evoking comparisons to the less stable governments of Greece and Italy.
“What used to be a celebration of democracy has become a moment of shame for this building,” Yair Lapid, a former finance minister and political rival of the prime minister, said on the floor of Parliament on Wednesday night.
The Parliament had until midnight Wednesday to form a majority government. But the hour passed with the two leading candidates for prime minister, Netanyahu and former army chief Benny Gantz, unable to negotiate a power-sharing agreement.
Until a new government is created, Netanyahu remains prime minister of a caretaker government.
By clinging to office, analysts say, Netanyahu would at least leave himself in a better position to negotiate a plea bargain with state prosecutors, and he could perhaps avoid trial altogether in exchange for retiring from public life.
In the next election, expected to be in March, he will have to campaign as a defendant in three criminal cases: He was indicted on Nov. 21 on bribery and other corruption charges, accused of trading official favors worth hundreds of millions of dollars to Israeli media moguls for lavish gifts and extravagantly positive press.
It is unclear whether the indictment itself will hurt his chances, though, since the outlines of the cases against him have been known for months.
Israeli opinion polls show that another contest between Netanyahu and Gantz would result in the same stalemate: Gantz’s Blue and White party nearly always comes out slightly ahead, but falls short of enough partners to form a majority coalition.
A poll on Tuesday by Israel’s Channel 13, however, showed Blue and White opening up a four-seat lead over Likud, and the anti-Netanyahu parties combined reaching 60 seats, compared with 52 seats for the prime minister’s party and its allies. A 61-seat majority is needed to form a government.
The circumstances have shifted in other unhappy ways for Netanyahu: He is now contending with a noisy rebellion in the ranks of his own conservative Likud party from a growing contingent of local officials and activists who fear that his refusal to step aside could hand power to Israel’s center-left coalition. Likud on Wednesday tentatively called a primary contest for the party’s leadership on Dec. 26.
So far, Netanyahu has managed to keep the rebels largely at bay by encouraging his political base to rage against the criminal justice system, fulminating against the media and political rivals to his left, and dangling promises to the right that if he keeps the job, he can capitalize on his close ties to the Trump administration to deliver historic achievements, including annexing territory in the occupied West Bank.
Gantz’s chances in a third round of elections also may have improved after his No. 2, Lapid, agreed Monday to give up his long-standing insistence on eventually succeeding Gantz as party leader, and potentially as prime minister.
Polls have shown that Lapid’s rotation agreement with Gantz was costing Blue and White two to four seats in Parliament.
Most Israelis are fed up with the contest and resent the idea of having a third election.
It will cost this small country some $500 million at a time when it is running a deficit, will prevent critical problems like overcrowded hospitals and failing schools from being addressed, and will make the military wait for approval of a new five-year spending plan despite growing threats in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Iran.
Still, Yohanan Plesner, president of the nonpartisan Israel Democracy Institute, said Israel’s governing institutions remained robust, particularly the law enforcement authorities that had just indicted a sitting prime minister for the first time.
Despite inherent flaws in the electoral system and some legal ambiguities in how to deal with a prime minister under indictment, he said, “I don’t think there is cause for long-term alarm.”
Plesner also noted that Israel was in good company. Since the mid-1990s it has held elections an average of every 2.3 years, but it now looks more like Greece, which held three elections within 10 months.
“This instability is not something to be proud of,” he said, “but it is our lot and at the same time Israeli democracy is solid.”
Israelis may be heading back to the polls in a fog of unprecedented and unresolved legal problems. While the law allows an indicted prime minister to remain in office, it says nothing about whether a candidate charged with serious offenses should be allowed to form a new government.
Israel’s attorney general, Avichai Mandelblit, has so far avoided issuing an opinion on that question, saying it was still only theoretical. But on Monday, the Supreme Court asked him to say by next week if or when he would clarify his views.
The brewing revolt within Likud adds to the challenges facing Netanyahu.
Gideon Saar, a popular former government minister, has drawn a growing number of local officials into open opposition to Netanyahu. The only contender so far who has pledged to challenge Netanyahu in the party’s primary contest, Saar has argued that a third election with Netanyahu in charge could cost the right its hold on power.
Saar’s campaign has unfurled a growing list of endorsements by Likud mayors, party leaders and officials in West Bank settlements.
“There’s been no proper government in Israel for more than a year, and there’s no end in sight,” said Shimon Lankri, the Likud mayor of Acre, explaining why he switched to support Saar.
As the calls for Netanyahu to step aside have grown louder, he has fashioned an elaborate argument for why he should be allowed to continue as prime minister, at least for the first six months of a rotation agreement with Gantz.
Given the Trump administration’s favorable disposition toward Netanyahu, he has argued, Israel’s right wing has a window of opportunity — which could close as the 2020 presidential election heats up, let alone if President Donald Trump is defeated — to press Trump for important new favors.
Chief among them is approval for Israel’s annexation of the Jordan Valley, a loosely populated agricultural region where Netanyahu insists Israel must maintain a military presence under any settlement with the Palestinians.
Netanyahu announced that he had spoken of the idea with Trump in a phone call on Dec. 1, and then with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo at a meeting in Lisbon on Dec. 4. But David Schenker, the assistant secretary of state for Near East affairs, told reporters on Friday that Netanyahu had presented Pompeo no formal plan for annexing the area, and reaffirmed the administration’s view that “the ultimate disposition of territory is to be determined between the parties,” not through unilateral moves.
Netanyahu is also talking up a defense treaty with the United States, although Israeli military leaders have long played down the wisdom of such an agreement, saying that Israel can already count on American support whenever it is needed and that a formal pact could tie Israel’s hands in a regional conflict.
Polls show that most Israelis hold Netanyahu responsible for the return to the ballot box. But on the right, some of Netanyahu’s defenders have pinned the continued political impasse on Gantz for refusing to enter a unity government led by Netanyahu, if only for a few months, or on Avigdor Lieberman, the leader of the ultranationalist, secular Yisrael Beiteinu party and a former Netanyahu ally who broke ranks with the right-wing, religious alliance.
About the only thing the parties seemed ready to agree on was a new election date — though not without some Talmudic debate and another round of eleventh-hour brinkmanship.
The political calendar dictated Tuesday, March 10, but that is Purim, a Jewish feast when revelers often drink themselves into oblivion, not conducive to performing a sober civic duty. The prior Tuesday is a memorial day for fallen soldiers.
The third Tuesday in March coincides with the anniversary of the death of an obscure Hasidic rabbi. Ultra-Orthodox parties were concerned that too many of their voters would be out of the country that day, making pilgrimages to the rabbi’s grave in Poland.
Giving up on Tuesdays, the lawmakers tentatively agreed on Monday, March 2 — though that falls smack in the middle of the policy conference of AIPAC, the pro-Israel lobbying group, a destination for a yearly pilgrimage to Washington by major Israeli politicians.
But even a vote on that agreement was held up by haggling between Likud and Blue and White and was unlikely to be decided until Thursday morning.
No matter the date, a third election may not be the charm. If that vote also fails to produce a government, Israeli law would mandate a fourth.
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