JERUSALEM — In a stunning turn, Israel will head to elections for a second time in less than six months after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu failed to form a government before a midnight Wednesday deadline.
Rather than give someone else the chance to do so, his party advanced a bill to dissolve the parliament and trigger new elections in September.
Despite his reputation as a master of political maneuvering, Netanyahu proved unable to bring Avigdor Liberman, his former defense minister, into a coalition that would give the prime minister a majority in the parliament, or Knesset. The two veteran politicians were at loggerheads over legislation sought by Liberman to draft ultra-Orthodox Jews into the military, a measure bitterly resisted by Netanyahu’s powerful political allies in the religious parties.
The move for new elections leaves Israel in political disarray as it now embarks on an expensive nationwide vote that has no guarantee of shifting the balance of power among the parties.
For Netanyahu, his inability to build a coalition casts fresh uncertainty over his future as he battles accusations of corruption and likely indictment in three criminal cases. This failure puts a stop for the time being to his party’s efforts at passing legislation that would shield him from prosecution.
And for the White House, the political breakdown presents a significant challenge to the rollout of President Trump’s long-awaited Middle East peace plan. Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law and adviser, was scheduled to touch down Wednesday night in the midst of Israel’s political maelstrom ahead of talks with Israeli officials about the economic component of the peace proposal.
In national elections in April, Netanyahu’s Likud party won the largest share of the vote and the most seats in parliament but fell well short of a majority in the 120-seat body. To achieve a majority required balancing the demands of the staunchly secular Liberman and ultra-Orthodox religious parties.
When the prime minister failed to do so, Knesset members, including a stony-faced Netanyahu, decided by a vote of 74 to 45 to dissolve the body just a month after being sworn in, making it the shortest-lived parliament in Israel’s history. The proposed date for new elections is Sept. 17.
“This is devastating to the average Israeli who is really tired of such selfish politics,” said Gil Hoffman, chief political correspondent for the Jerusalem Post. “There is no way to explain this situation to the average Israelis who are saying their politicians aren’t working for their interests.”
Netanyahu and Liberman blamed each other for Israel returning to the polls. Speaking to the Knesset in the early hours of Thursday morning after it voted to dissolve itself, Netanyahu branded Liberman as “part of the left” and said he wanted to topple the government.
“It’s completely unbelievable,” the prime minister said, promising to win in the new elections. “You waste billions, and you paralyze the state for almost a year. We have very important things to do.”
While Netanyahu’s allies accused Liberman of trying to destroy the prime minister, Liberman said there was no “hidden agenda” behind his actions.
Liberman had been insisting on the passage — without amendment — of a bill that sets quotas for drafting the ultra-Orthodox into the military. Ultra-Orthodox parties, which hold 16 seats in Netanyahu’s proposed coalition, have asked that the bill’s requirements be eased.
Traditionally, the ultra-Orthodox have been exempted from conscription so they can devote themselves to studying religious texts. This exemption is widely resented by many other Israeli Jews, who are required to serve in the military, including many of Liberman’s constituents.
A Supreme Court ruling on the issue of ultra-Orthodox conscription has required the government to pass legislation changing the current system of generous exemptions. But some political observers said the legislation itself had little to do with the breakdown of coalition talks.
“The Knesset is dispersing itself over an ego battle,” Hoffman said.
Liberman and Netanyahu have a fractious history. Liberman quit the Likud party in 1997, taking issue with concessions that Netanyahu granted to Palestinians in negotiations leading up to the Wye River Memorandum.
Since then, Liberman has tried to hone a strongman image while repeatedly serving in governments with Netanyahu despite their conflicts. Most recently, Liberman quit his post of defense minister last year to protest Netanyahu’s policy in the Gaza Strip, arguing it was too soft on the Hamas militant group that controls the enclave.
Netanyahu accused Liberman of using the current political showdown as a way to win more Knesset seats.
It’s possible he could do that, said Maoz Rosenthal, a senior lecturer at the Lauder School of Government at the Interdisciplinary Center, Herzliya. “This plays perfectly with his base, and this kind of behavior has benefited him in the past.”
Netanyahu had been given a two-week extension beyond the initial deadline to form a government, the maximum time allowed under the law. In the past, when a political leader has been unable to form a coalition, the Israeli president has then given a chance to another Knesset member to do so.
Under the Israeli parliamentary system, the prime minister is not necessarily the leader of the largest bloc in the Knesset but the person able to form a government by lining up a majority of members. In 2009, when Tzipi Livni failed to form a government even though her Kadima party won the most seats in the elections, it opened the way for Netanyahu to do so and become prime minister.
In a statement earlier Wednesday, President Reuven Rivlin said he would “do everything in my power to prevent the State of Israel from going to another election campaign.” But while Netanyahu was unable to secure a majority, he made sure no one else would get a chance.
On Wednesday afternoon, opposition lawmakers had begun a filibuster aimed at preventing the Knesset from triggering new elections but said they stopped after it became clear that former military chief of staff Benny Gantz of the opposition Blue and White party was also making little headway in his informal efforts to form an alternative coalition.
The Trump administration is tightly aligned with Netanyahu, who claims the relationship as his calling card. Trump has repeatedly made clear his backing for Netanyahu and has been looking to the Israeli leader to support the U.S. peace initiative.
The secret peace package drafted by Kushner is expected to codify some aspects of current Israeli control of disputed territory and to stop short of ensuring a fully sovereign Palestinian state.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told an audience of senior U.S. Jewish leaders Tuesday that Trump and his advisers know the plan could fall flat and said they have a Plan B, according to a person in the room who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the private meeting.
The White House plans to unveil the plan in two parts.
Kushner has announced a gathering of Arab and other governments in Bahrain in late June to air economic proposals for development of the Palestinian areas, as well as Egypt, Jordan and probably Morocco. The money would largely come from Gulf Arab states, although Kushner frames the gathering as a “workshop” rather than a pledging conference.
The more consequential political elements would follow at an unspecified date. Israeli political analysts said a delay to the rollout is convenient for Netanyahu because it could be problematic for him to discuss political compromises with his far-right partners.
It is unclear whether new elections will delay Netanyahu’s pre-indictment hearing, scheduled for October. Netanyahu denies the allegations of corruption, bribery and breach of trust.
Netanyahu’s Likud was also advancing legislation to give Knesset members, including the prime minister, immunity from prosecution, while trying to roll back the powers of the Supreme Court to overturn Knesset legislation it deems unconstitutional.
While the balance of power among political blocs might not change drastically before the elections, there could be shifts, said Reuven Hazan, a politics professor at Hebrew University.
“When Netanyahu called the last election, there was no such thing as Blue and White, no contest,” he said. “Netanyahu can control when we call it and what the date is, but what happens after is completely out of anyone’s control.”
Anne Gearan and John Hudson in Washington contributed.