Election-weary Israel to face third vote in a year

Jerusalem (AFP) –


Israel's political system was facing an unprecedented crisis Thursday, after the country's politicians failed to form a government and dissolved for a new election –- the third in a year.

Less than three months after an inconclusive general election, with both Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and challenger Benny Gantz failing to form a governing coalition, the Israeli parliament dissolved itself in the early hours of Thursday, setting a new vote for March 2.

The September election followed a similarly deadlocked vote in April and opinion polls suggested next year's vote could again be tight, with neither Netanyahu's right-wing bloc nor Gantz's centre-left alliance currently on course for a majority.

Pro-Netanyahu newspaper Israel Hayom labelled the deadlock a "circus" on its front page on Thursday.

For Netanyahu, who was last month indicted on a series of corruption charges, the immediate challenge is to make sure he leads his Likud party into the election -– with a leadership primary set for later this month.

In September, Gantz's Blue and White alliance won 33 seats in the 120-member parliament, while Netanyahu's Likud got 32.

Unable to command a majority with their natural allies, the two men spent weeks in talks on a national unity government but failed to agree on who should lead it.

- Referendum, again -

Snap elections are deeply unpopular with the Israeli electorate, and Gantz and Netanyahu were quick to trade blame on Wednesday.

Opinion polls found that around 40 percent of respondents blamed Netanyahu primarily for the deadlock, with only 5 percent naming Gantz as the main cause.

The last two elections have been seen as referendums on the leadership of Netanyahu, Israel's longest-serving leader but a deeply divisive figure.

The 70-year-old has been in power since 2009.

Politics professor Gideon Rahat said the third round would again revolve around "for Netanyahu or against Netanyahu."

Israel's attorney general last month charged Netanyahu with bribery, fraud and breach of trust in a series of corruption cases. He denies all wrongdoing, blaming a witchhunt.

"Netanyahu might try to ask people to protect him vis-a-vis the vicious people that are after him," Rahat said. "The other side will say he is corrupt and he shouldn't be the next prime minister."

Netanyahu has proven to have a loyal support base and there have been few signs he will be abandoned by many of them.

Gantz had called on Netanyahu to announce he would not seek immunity from prosecution if he wins and Israeli media said the issue was likely to loom large in the campaign for next year's election.

Netanyahu's immediate concern is ensuring he remains Likud leader, with a primary set for December 26.

His only confirmed challenger, Gideon Saar, has called for a change of leadership to clean up politics.

- Hobbling the country -

A majority of Jewish Israelis identify as right wing, said Dahlia Scheindlin, a political analyst who has worked on seven elections.

She said while small changes could have a significant impact, both Gantz and Netanyahu faced an uphill struggle to win a majority -- with a third deadlock the likely result.

"There may be some small shifts between the parties, but it is very hard to imagine either bloc getting 61 without Lieberman," he said.

Israel has now been nearly a year without a fully empowered government.

The three elections could cost the economy a total of 12 billion shekels ($3.4 billion, 3.1 billion euros), according to the Manufacturers Association of Israel.

"The country is still functioning, nothing has collapsed, schools and hospitals are still open," Scheindlin said.

"But we are seeing a hobbled situation -– budgets haven't been passed, no long term planning is possible."