Israel’s parliament began rushing through a bill on Wednesday to call a third general election within a year, as talks between embattled premier Benjamin Netanyahu and his centrist rival broke down ahead of a midnight deadline.
A deal to avert a new election must be reached before 11:59 pm (2159 GMT).
But Netanyahu and his rival Benny Gantz, both of whom have failed to build a governing majority in the Knesset, or parliament, since a deadlocked vote in September, have spent days trading blame for the failing coalition talks.
On Wednesday morning, the Israeli parliament passed 50-0 a preliminary reading of a bill immediately dissolving parliament and setting a new election for March 2.
It must face three more plenary readings and votes during the day before passing into law.
A new election would be another challenge for Netanyahu — Israel’s longest serving premier, now governing in a caretaker capacity — at a time when he must fend off a leadership vote in his right-wing Likud party.
But it may also be seen as a victory for the incumbent, who faced the risk of major defections from his rightwing bloc when he was indicted on corruption charges last month.
Netanyahu and Gantz, a former armed forces chief who heads the centrist Blue and White party, had been discussing a potential unity government, but disagreed on who should lead it.
Following the corruption charges, Gantz called on Netanyahu to step down and encouraged defections among his allies, but they largely stood by the 70-year-old.
Gantz has demanded Netanyahu publicly declare he would not seek parliamentary immunity as a precondition to further talks.
“It now seems that we will be going into a third election cycle today because of Netanyahu’s attempt to obtain immunity,” Gantz told lawmakers on Wednesday. “We must stand in opposition to this.”
On Tuesday night, Netanyahu called on Gantz to stop “spinning.”
“After 80 days, it’s time that for one day, for the citizens of Israel, we sit and have a serious discussion about forming a broad unity government. It’s not too late,” he said on social media.
If confirmed, it would be the first time Israel’s weary electorate has been asked to go to the polls three times within 12 months.
– Reluctant kingmaker –
The parties of Netanyahu and Gantz were nearly deadlocked in September’s election, following a similarly inconclusive poll in April.
Israel’s proportional system is reliant on coalition building, and both parties fell well short of the 61 seats needed to command a majority in the 120-seat Knesset.
Both were then given 28-day periods to try and forge a workable coalition but failed, forcing President Reuven Rivlin to turn to parliament with his deadline for Wednesday.
New elections are deeply unpopular with the Israeli public, which has expressed mounting anger and frustration with the entire political class.
Both parties had been trying to convince Avigdor Lieberman, a crucial kingmaker, to join their blocs.
But the former nightclub bouncer, whose secular nationalist Yisrael Beitenu party holds the balance of power, has refused.
Speaking on Wednesday lunchtime, Lieberman accused both parties of putting their interests over those of the country, saying he “did everything” to achieve a broad national unity government including both Likud and Blue and White.
“I can’t accept that the country’s agenda is dictated by one man’s personal (legal) issues,” he said of Netanyahu, before accusing Gantz’s party of “acting disgracefully and cheating their voters.”
– Internal challenge –
Netanyahu was indicted last month for bribery, breach of trust and fraud relating to three separate corruption cases.
He strongly denies the allegations and accuses the media, police and prosecution of a witch-hunt.
No date has yet been set for the beginning of the proceedings and, under Israeli law, Netanyahu can remain in office despite the indictment.
He also faces a challenge from within his Likud party, which tentatively decided on Wednesday to have leadership primaries on December 26.
His only confirmed rival, Gideon Saar, hailed the planned vote, saying there was a need for “a breakthrough that will end the ongoing political crisis, enable the formation of a strong government, and unite the people of Israel.”
To boost his support, Netanyahu has pushed his plan to annex a strategic part of the occupied West Bank, as well as signing a defense treaty with the United States.
He is a close ally of US President Donald Trump, who has taken a number of controversial steps in support of Netanyahu’s agenda.
Despite Netanyahu’s indictment, polls suggest that a third round of elections could still be neck and neck — prompting some Israelis to speculate about yet another electoral stalemate.