Israel facing prospect of a fourth election in just over a year

Knesset could dissolve early next month if current coalition talks end in failure

Benny Gantz, leader of the Blue and White party, and Israel prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu could soon be facing the electorate once again. Photograph: Ammar Awad/Reuters

Benny Gantz, leader of the Blue and White party, and Israel prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu could soon be facing the electorate once again. Photograph: Ammar Awad/Reuters

 

Israel faces the prospect of a fourth election in just over a year after president Reuven Rivlin returned the mandate for forming a government to the Knesset, following inconclusive elections in March.

The parliament now has three weeks in which any candidate can try to muster 61 lawmakers in the 120-member chamber in order to be given the task of building a coalition.

With that scenario hanging in the balance, the Knesset could dissolve early next month, prompting Israel’s fourth election since April 2019.

Benny Gantz, head of the centrist Blue and White party, was granted the mandate to form the government after the March vote as he received more recommendations than Binyamin Netanyahu, who has now served as transitional prime minister for a year.

However, it was clear that neither Mr Gantz nor Mr Netanyahu would be able to form a working majority and negotiations began on an emergency government to tackle the coronavirus crisis, involving a rotation of the premiership with Mr Netanyahu continuing for the first 18 months, to be replaced by Mr Gantz for the same period of time.

Despite deep mutual mistrust, a deal was close a few weeks ago before Mr Netanyahu raised concerns that the country’s high court would block him serving as prime minister or deputy prime minister because he has been charged with serious corruption offences, with his trial scheduled to start next month. He denies any wrongdoing, claiming he is the victim of a left-wing witch-hunt.

Negotiators from Mr Netanyahu’s Likud party insisted on a clause overriding the high court decision, calling for new elections in the event that the judges blocked a Netanyahu-led government. Mr Gantz refused, saying he had come to form a national emergency government, not to help Mr Netanyahu with his legal problems.

Unity government

Mr Netanyahu gives regular updates on the coronavirus crisis on prime time TV and since the March election his popularity has increased significantly – current polls predict his bloc of right-wing and religious parties would win a comfortable majority.

Mr Gantz’s decision to form a unity government with Mr Netanyahu, in contradiction of his main election promise, led to the break-up of Blue and White into two separate factions and dealt a blow to his credibility.

But Mr Netanyahu knows that a fourth election is a high-risk gamble and would be deeply unpopular with the Israeli public, who are desperate for some kind of political stability in these challenging times.

So coalition talks are continuing but Blue and White is threatening that if there is no coalition deal by Monday, the party will advance legislation to prevent a candidate who is facing criminal charges from serving as prime minister.