Israelis will head back to the polls for the third general election in less than a year after the two largest parties failed to make a power-sharing deal before a Wednesday deadline.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who heads the right-wing Likud party, and his main rival Benny Gantz, a former army chief and leader of the centrist Blue and White alliance, were unable to build a governing coalition following an indecisive September general election. It is the second time this year that the leading parties failed to form a government after a national vote.
President Reuven Rivlin had offered all legislators the opportunity to cobble together a majority bloc in the country’s 120-seat parliament, but this approach also failed, meaning that the country will now head to the polls on March 2.
Gantz and Netanyahu faced off for the second time on September 17, with Blue and White winning 33 seats compared with Likud’s 32, in a vote that was called after an April election also failed to produce a government. However, neither party leader managed to secure a bloc of 61 seats, as kingmaker Avigdor Lieberman, who leads the far-right Yisrael Beiteinu party, declined to back either candidate.
An attempt to form a national unity government consisting of the three parties, with Netanyahu and Gantz rotating the prime minister position, ultimately failed as they were not able to agree who should serve as prime minister first.
Last month, Netanyahu was indicted for bribery, breach of trust and fraud in three corruption cases, which could damage his bid to stay in office.
According to a recent poll by the Israel Democracy Institute, 59 percent of Israelis say they want Netanyahu to step down after he was charged. Under Israeli law, Netanyahu would be forced to leave his post if convicted, but can remain in office while legal proceedings including appeals are ongoing. The whole process of indictment and trial could last for as long as two years.
Netanyahu has denied any wrongdoing and accused prosecutors of attempting a coup against him. He called for a commission to “investigate the investigators” and said law enforcement authorities “must be taken care of”. His senior allies have backed him, lashing out at the legal establishment, calling senior prosecutors criminals and the attorney general a “spineless puppet”.
The prosecutors and attorney general have reportedly received additional police protection this year after threats by supporters of the prime minister.
Israeli journalist Meron Rapoport likened Netanyahu, Israel’s longest-serving prime minister, to a “king who lost his power”.
“It’s quite obvious that Netanyahu is in his last political days,” Rapoport told Al Jazeera. “I think very few people can see the situation in which he will be prime minister and will be on trial at the same time.”
Netanyahu and the right-wing bloc are much weaker than they were a year ago, and are consequently making a mistake by going to elections since Blue and White and the Arab Joint List could move closer to the 61-seat goal, Rapoport added.
Dahlia Scheindlin, a public opinion expert and political analyst, agreed that Likud could lose some seats in the upcoming election.
“They already lost voters between April and September and those voters left for reasons that continue to be the case,” Scheindlin said.
“They think Netanyahu has been in power for too long. Some of them are getting tired of the corruption cases, and I think the result on the judiciary in response to the indictment probably alienated some people as well.”
Given the seriousness of the charges, it is uncertain whether Netanyahu will be able to maintain support within his own party. Netanyahu and his main rival within Likud, Gideon Sa’ar, have agreed to hold a leadership ballot on December 26, pending the approval of the party’s central committee. Sa’ar, a former education minister, had called for a primary race to replace Netanyahu and “save the country”.
According to a poll published on Friday, Sa’ar is gaining popularity among the public. While Netanyahu was seen as the most popular Likud leader with 33 percent approval, Sa’ar was not far behind on 29 percent, according to a survey by Channel 12.
But despite Sa’ar’s rising star, a Channel 12 survey last week showed Likud dropping from 33 seats to 26 in the next election if he were to replace Netanyahu, with the lost votes diverting to smaller right-wing parties.
As has become common in the run-up to recent elections in Israel, candidates have been promoting their right-wing credentials. In recent days, Netanyahu and Sa’ar have argued over who would assert the most control over the occupied West Bank, where some 400,000 Israelis reside in settlements illegally built on land that Palestinians want for a future state. An estimated 250,000 additional Israelis reside in settlements in occupied East Jerusalem.
After Netanyahu implied that Sa’ar had received favourable media coverage because he would make concessions to the Palestinians in the West Bank, Sa’ar called for Israeli sovereignty to be applied to all settlements.
“The future of Judea and Samaria (the occupied West Bank) must be ensured through acts and not talk: Stop the Palestinian takeover of Area C, which has continued undisturbed for years. Evacuate Khan al-Ahmar after countless postponements. Apply Israeli sovereignty to all of our settlement territory, as the Likud central committee decided two years ago,” Sa’ar wrote on Twitter.
Rapoport told Al Jazeera that Netanyahu could attempt to annex the Jordan Valley region in the West Bank, as he had pledged in the run-up to September’s election. Last month, Netanyahu approved fast-tracking a proposed law to annex the territory.
“The main legacy for Netanyahu is to prevent the Palestinian state and by annexing the Jordan Valley, of course it could be the death blow to the two-state solution,” Rapoport said.
Last month, the US announced it no longer viewed Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank as illegal.