Israeli politics is once again in turmoil: parliament has dissolved and Israel will hold yet another election expected on March 23. It will be Israel's fourth national vote in the span of two years.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his centrist coalition partner Benny Gantz failed to pass a national budget in the Knesset, Israel's parliament, before a midnight deadline, leading to parliament's automatic dissolution and new elections.
But analysts say the political crisis is primarily due to Netanyahu's interest in triggering early elections to stay in power beyond his current term, hoping to strengthen his hand as he fights corruption charges in court.
"The reason we're heading to an election is because Netanyahu refused to pass a budget as required by law and honor political agreements so that he can remain in power for the duration of his trial," said Yohanan Plesner, president of the nonpartisan Israel Democracy Institute think tank.
After struggling to win a new term in three consecutive elections, Netanyahu managed to form a government at the start of the pandemic by agreeing to share power with Gantz and to let him take over as prime minister in November 2021. But the government was dysfunctional and many believed Netanyahu would seek new elections rather than let Gantz take the reins.
Netanyahu and Gantz tried to delay the parliament's possible dissolution for another few weeks, but defectors from their parties blocked that effort and preferred to push for new elections. Some even reportedly hid in their cars and ignored phone calls from their own parties before slipping into the Knesset to cast their dissenting votes.
In a televised speech hours before parliament dissolved, Netanyahu vowed he would win if new elections were held, citing his procurement of COVID-19 vaccines and forging diplomatic ties with four Arab countries.
"Most Israeli citizens see our leadership and our incredible accomplishments. We bring millions of vaccines, we bring historic peace agreements, we avert the Iranian threat, we turn Israel into one of the world's leading economies," he said.
Netanyahu's fight for reelection is likely to be an uphill battle. His ally President Trump, who is immensely popular in Israel and helped Netanyahu score political points in previous elections, will no longer be in the White House. Netanyahu's corruption trial is scheduled to resume with witness testimony in February. The pandemic will continue to disrupt Israeli life and a COVID-19 vaccine drive will still not be complete.
Gideon Saar, a formidable new challenger who quit Netanyahu's governing Likud party earlier this month, is seeking to replace him. Opinion polls show Saar has a good chance of beating Netanyahu by forming his own governing coalition of secular, mostly right-wing parties.
"We enter this election with a clear advantage in polls for the political right, but also the growing possibility of [a] coalition that refuses to cooperate with Netanyahu," Plesner said.
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Israel will have its fourth national election in two years. NPR's Daniel Estrin explains what's going on.
DANIEL ESTRIN, BYLINE: Israel's Parliament dissolved automatically at midnight because it failed to pass the budget. It was Netanyahu who resisted passing the budget, triggering new elections.
YOHANAN PLESNER: And he did not pass the budget in order to remain in power throughout his trial.
ESTRIN: Yohanan Plesner of the Israel Democracy Institute says Netanyahu wants to strengthen his position as a defendant on trial facing bribery and fraud charges. New elections means Netanyahu is no longer bound by his power-sharing agreement to step down and hand over the job to centrist rival Benny Gantz. Now Netanyahu gets a fresh shot at a new term. Elections are expected to take place March 23.
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PRIME MINISTER BENJAMIN NETANYAHU: (Speaking Hebrew).
ESTRIN: On TV last night, Netanyahu said his right-wing Likud Party would win because of his successes procuring COVID-19 vaccines and forging diplomatic ties with four Arab countries this year. But he doesn't have a clear path to victory. Many Israelis are sick of Netanyahu after more than a decade in office. He's been blamed for a botched response to the pandemic, and polls show these elections could end in stalemate, just like the last three elections. Netanyahu has had strong support with voters, but his corruption charges are a liability, and he may not have enough support in Parliament to lead a majority.
Plesner of the Israel Democracy Institute.
PLESNER: This won't end until either Mr. Netanyahu is replaced or if he finds a way, by legislation or political maneuvering, to either put his trial on hold or suspend it.
ESTRIN: In the last elections, Netanyahu faced a centrist challenger, Gantz, but his party has largely disintegrated. This time, Netanyahu's leading challengers are all right-wing former allies. No matter who wins, it'll likely be a right-wing leader who supports Jewish settlement expansion in the occupied West Bank and opposes Palestinians declaring independence on that land. And that could place Israel on a collision course with the incoming Biden administration.
Daniel Estrin, NPR News, Jerusalem.
(SOUNDBITE OF YONDERLING SONG, "WHISPER") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.