Israel’s government collapsed on Wednesday, this triggered the country’s fourth election in just under two years and bringing an unprecedented threat to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s lengthy grip on power.
Netanyahu, who is used to labeling his opponents as weak leftists, finds himself confronted by a trio of disgruntled former aides who share his hard-line ideology, led by a popular lawmaker who recently broke away from the prime minister’s Likud party.
Netanyahu and Gantz formed their coalition last May after battling to a stalemate in three consecutive elections. They said they were putting aside their personal rivalry to form an “emergency” government focused on guiding the country through the health and economic crises caused by the pandemic.
The cause of the collapse was the failure to pass a budget by the midnight Tuesday deadline. That caused the parliament to automatically dissolve and set new elections for late March.
But the deeper cause was their troubled partnership, which was plagued by mutual hostility and mistrust from the outset. For seven months, Gantz has suffered a number of humiliations and been kept out of the loop on key decisions, such as a series of U.S.-brokered diplomatic agreements with Arab countries.
At the heart of this dysfunctional relationship is Netanyahu’s corruption trial. Gantz has accused Netanyahu of undermining their power-sharing deal in hopes of remaining in office throughout his trial, which is to kick into high gear in February when witnesses begin to take the stand.
“A criminal defendant with three indictments is dragging the country to a fourth round of elections,” Blue and White said Tuesday night. “If there wasn’t a trial, there would be a budget and there wouldn’t be elections.”
Netanyahu is charged with fraud, breach of trust and accepting bribes in a series of scandals in which he is accused of offering favors to powerful media figures in exchange for positive news coverage about him and his family.
“The ongoing political crisis will continue as long as Mr. Netanyahu remains prime minister and no government can be formed without him,” said Yohanan Plesner, a former lawmaker who is president of the Israel Democracy Institute.
“I think it is quite safe to assume that this won’t end until either Mr. Netanyahu is replaced or if he finds a way, through legislation or political maneuvering, to either put his trial on hold or suspend it altogether,” he said.
Netanyahu has been unable to put together a majority coalition with his traditional religious and nationalist allies. Yet he controlled enough seats to prevent his opponents from cobbling together an alternate coalition.
If elections were held today, Saar’s party would finish second behind the Likud, appearing to give him a veto over a Netanyahu-led government, according to polls. Saar has vowed he will not serve under Netanyahu.
Naftali Bennett, another former aide who had a falling out with Netanyahu, leads a religious right-wing party that also has surged in the polls.