Israel heads to unprecedented third election in a year

Lawmakers sit during a session of the Knesset (Israeli parliament) in Jerusalem on December 11, 2019. Israel's parliament was rushing through a bill to call a third general election in a year, prolonging a political crisis and fuelling deep dissatisfactio
  • AFP
  • 12/12/2019 11:13 AM

Jerusalem -- After months of deadlocked
talks and the indictment of the prime minister, Israel moved Wednesday to its
third election in 12 months, a first in the history of the Jewish state.


The elections will likely deepen polarisation and fuel deep dissatisfaction
with politicians that have been unable to form a government in a year.


Rightwing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, neck and neck with centrist
rival Benny Gantz in April and September polls, will this time go to the people
with an extra millstone around his neck -- an ongoing indictment over a series
of corruption charges.


The two men had been discussing forming a unity government but the talks
broke down.


MPs had until 23.59 to find a candidate capable of gaining a majority in the
parliament, or Knesset but the deadline passed, meaning parliament dissolves
and the country returns to the polls in March. 


MPs were expected to confirm the exact date and confirmed election
procedures and financing in the early hours of Thursday.

-
Trading blame -

Early polls suggest Netanyahu's Likud party could still be near level with
Gantz's Blue and White.

Even before the new election was confirmed, the two men were trading blame
and launching their campaigns.


"They forced new elections upon us," Netanyahu said in a video
published by his Likud party, referring to Gantz's Blue and White party.


"In order to stop it recurring again there is only one thing to do and
that is to win, and to win big time."

"We will be going into a third election cycle today because of
Netanyahu's attempt to obtain immunity," Gantz told lawmakers, referring
to the premier's legal troubles. "We must stand in opposition to
this."


The new elections are deeply unpopular among the electorate, with the
Manufacturers Association of Israel estimating the three elections could cost
the economy a total of  12 billion shekels ($3.4 billion, 3.1 billion
euros).


A poll published by Israel's Channel 13 TV found that 41 percent of people
thought Netanyahu was to blame for the impasses, with only 5 percent blaming
Gantz.

-'Festival
of hate' - 

Likud and Blue and White were nearly deadlocked  but each fell well
short of a majority in September's election, following a similarly inconclusive
poll in April.


Both were then given 28-day periods to try to forge a workable coalition but
failed, each trying unsuccessfully to convince kingmaker Avigdor Lieberman to
join their blocs.


A new election will likely again be seen as a referendum on the leadership
of Netanyahu, a deeply divisive figure in Israel.


In power since 2009, to his supporters say Israel's longest-serving premier
has transformed the country into a tech and innovation powerhouse, while
keeping it safe in a tumultuous Middle East.


But critics accuse the rightwinger of ruling through sowing discord and
hatred, as well as corruption and monopolising power.


Netanyahu was indicted last month for bribery, breach of trust and fraud
relating to three separate corruption cases.


He 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.


Gantz, a former armed forces chief, has campaigned on clean politics and
called on Netanyahu to step down after the indictment.


He also encouraged defections among Netanyahu's allies, but they largely
stood by the 70-year-old leader.


Despite the indictment, early polls suggest a third round of elections could
again be neck and neck. 

Fighting for his career and possibly even his freedom, critics expect Netanyahu
to use dirty tricks in the coming months.


"These elections are going to be a festival of hate, violence and
filth," Yair Lapid, a senior Blue and White politician, said late
Wednesday.

-
Internal challenge -

Before the elections Netanyahu has an internal challenge to navigate, with
his Likud party announcing on Wednesday it plans to have leadership primaries
on December 26.


His only confirmed rival, Gideon Saar, said it was time for a change to
"end the ongoing political crisis".

Whether he will be able to gain the support of the majority of the party,
many of whom are fiercely loyal to Netanyahu, remains doubtful.


With his eye on the campaign trail, Netanyahu has in recent days pushed his
plan to annex a strategic part of the occupied West Bank, as well as to sign a
defence 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 rightwing agenda.

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