Israel will hold its fourth election in two years on March 23rd after the government failed to meet a midnight deadline for passing a budget.
The timing was not good for the leaders of the two biggest parties in the outgoing coalition, Likud and Blue and White, so prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Blue and White leader Benny Gantz struck a last-minute deal to extend the budget deadline.
However, a small number of parliamentarians from both parties failed to back the deal and, in the early hours of Tuesday morning, the Knesset rejected the deadline extension 49-47, bringing an end in less than 10 months to what is widely considered the most dysfunctional government in Israel’s history.
The result of the vote hung in the balance until the last minute, and two Knesset members even hid in their cars in the Knesset car park until the vote was called, rushing into the chamber to vote against at the last minute, in a successful ruse to deceive the government counters.
One of the Likud rebels, Knesset member Michal Shir, announced after the vote that she was quitting the party to join the new right-wing party New Hope, set up earlier this month by Gideon Sa'ar, who had also quit the Likud.
Mr Netanyahu blamed Blue and White for the collapse of the government, accusing Mr Gantz of failing to get his faction to support the deal to extend the budget deadline.
"I'm not afraid of elections. We're ready for them, we'll win," he declared. "The Israeli public knows who has delivered millions of vaccines, four peace agreements, who is stopping Iran, who has delivered security and who is going to rehabilitate the economy with greater momentum."
But the polls paint a different story, and Mr Sa’ar’s new party has upset the political apple cart.
This election will not be the usual Netanyahu vs the centre-left. This time, Israel’s longest-serving prime minister will have to focus his efforts against right-wing rivals.
He faces three other right-wing parties and the leaders of two of them – Mr Sa'ar and Yisrael Beiteinu leader Avigdor Lieberman – have vowed not to sit in a Netanyahu government under any circumstances. The leader of the third party, Yamina, Naftali Bennett, says he wants to replace Mr Netanyahu as prime minister.
Polls show that parties that have pledged not to join a Netanyahu government will win 64 out of 120 Knesset seats.
Another problem for Mr Netanyahu is that in February a trial is set to begin where he will face charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust. He denies all the charges, claiming he is the victim of a left-wing witch-hunt, and it remains to be seen what impact Israel’s trial of the century will have on the vote.
With Israel’s Covid-19 vaccination programme now under way, Mr Netanyahu is hoping that the worst will be over by election day and that he will receive credit for ensuring the delivery of enough vaccines for the entire population.