Unless there are some fundamental changes in the race, however, there is little indication that a third round of voting will do anything to unclog the current political stalemate, which has left Israel’s parliamentary system and government paralyzed for nearly a year.
The previous election, on Sept. 17, produced a virtual tie between Likud, the ruling party headed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and Blue and White, a newcomer faction led by former military chief Benny Gantz. With neither party gaining enough seats in the 120-seat Knesset to establish a government, both attempted and failed over the past few months to cobble together a coalition.
In an unprecedented move Nov. 21, the mandate for forming a government, or at least producing an alternative candidate who might break the deadlock, was given to the Knesset. The parliament then had 21 days, which ended Wednesday evening at midnight, with formal notification from the president expected first thing Thursday morning.
While both Netanyahu, who has led the country for more than a decade, and Gantz had called for a unity government that would see their parties ruling together, neither was willing to compromise on their core demands. And as it became clear this week that Israel was headed into another round, both refused to take the blame for the deepening crisis.
“Citizens of Israel, there is only a little over 24 hours left to avoid costly and unnecessary elections. I want you to know that I, along with my friends in Blue and White, are making every effort to find a way to form a government that will not compromise our fundamental values upon which we first entered politics,” Gantz said in a statement Tuesday.
Blue and White, which gained one more seat than Likud in the September vote, has insisted that a power-sharing arrangement would work only if Gantz was allowed to serve first as prime minister. The party also has cited Netanyahu’s legal woes — last month he was indicted on multiple criminal charges — and suggested that he focus on clearing his name before returning to the premiership.
A Likud statement Wednesday accused Blue and White of trying to “spin” the situation and of “failing in every way possible to form a unity government.”
Netanyahu, who has maintained that the legal case against him is a witch hunt to force him out of office, has refused to relinquish the top spot to Gantz, pointing out that the Likud leader is backed by a bloc of small, right-wing and ultra-Orthodox parties.
Last week, in a last-ditch effort, Netanyahu did offer to hand over power to Gantz after an initial six-month period, but this proposal was dismissed by Blue and White as a ruse to stay in power and avoid prosecution.
“It’s an endless spiral, and it’s all to do with one person and his legal problems,” said Reuven Hazan, a professor of political science at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. “Because the legislative branch has to establish the executive branch and because of the judicial [and] legal branch, we are caught in this cycle,” he said.
Under Israeli law, a prime minister facing indictment can remain in power until convicted on appeal, but with the Knesset now suspended until after the March vote, it is unclear how the overall legal process will move forward. It is still an open question as to whether a prime ministerial candidate facing prosecution is permitted to form a government.
Professor Yedidia Stern, a senior fellow at the Israel Democracy Institute, said that the indictment against Netanyahu could play a crucial role in the upcoming election round.
“We are in a new phase of the legal process, and that might change how some Israelis view the fitness of the prime minister being elected, even though we have not yet seen a major change in the polls,” he said.
A poll published Tuesday by Israeli news website Walla showed Likud trailing Blue and White by two seats. However, the makeup of the left-wing and right-wing blocs, a key component to forming any future coalition, appeared unchanged.
The same poll also showed that 41 percent of Israelis held Netanyahu responsible for causing another election, with 33 percent blaming Avigdor Liberman, the hawkish former defense minister. Since April, Liberman, who heads a right-wing, secular party, has refused to endorse either Likud or Blue and White, saying he’ll support only a unity government. Just 6 percent of those asked blamed Gantz for the political quagmire.
Jason Pearlman, a communications strategist who has worked with several right-wing politicians, said that the question of who is to blame for “dragging the country into another round of elections” could also affect the outcome of the vote.
The other question, he said, is whether there would be a change in players.
As the Knesset debated its own disbandment Wednesday, Likud announced that leadership primaries would take place Dec. 26.
“If there’s a change in the Likud leadership, that would not only mean different results, but the coalition possibilities afterwards are much wider,” Pearlman said. “Some polls show that a Likud led by another candidate would be better placed to form a government than Netanyahu. The question is, are Likud members able to internalize that the man who has kept them in power for a decade . . . is now the man who is keeping them out?”
Netanyahu has helmed Likud for more than a decade, most of that time without any serious opposition, but in recent weeks, Gideon Saar, a popular former minister, has made clear his intention to run against the longtime leader. He has warned party members that leaving Netanyahu at the head of Likud could mean losing power.
Saar welcomed the announcement of primaries Wednesday, writing on Twitter, “There is a national need for a breakthrough that will end the ongoing political crisis, enable the formation of a strong government, and to unite the people of Israel.”