Israel’s divided coalition government collapsed Tuesday, triggering the country’s fourth round of national elections in under two years.
The government fell after Knesset, Israel’s parliament, failed to pass an annual budget by a midnight deadline as right-wing and centrist parties, which reached a power-sharing agreement in the spring, could not reach a deal. A vote to extend the deadline by 10 days fell short by two votes.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will face an unprecedented right-wing challenge to his record-long rule in the March 23 election after major defections from the Likud party.
Netanyahu, whose popularity has waned as the coronavirus had wreaked havoc on the Israeli economy, finds himself up against three discontented former aides who share his ideology. The trio is led by Gideon Saar, a former Likud education minister who resigned from the Knesset to start the “New Hope” party to challenge Netanyahu.
Polls show the new party would pull a significant number of parliamentary seats from Likud as even right-wing voters grow frustrated with Netanyahu.
Also facing a struggle in the elections is the Blue and White party, Israel’s center-left bloc, after its leader, Defense Minister Benny Gantz, formed an alliance with Netanyahu in May, disappointing his base and leaving the bloc without a leader.
The pair said they were working beyond their rivalry to establish an “emergency” government to steer the country through the concurrent crises wrought by the pandemic.
The deal made Gantz “alternate prime minister” and scheduled him to swap places with Netanyahu next November.
But after seven months of their tumultuous partnership, polls show Gantz may not receive enough votes to enter the next Knesset.
Netanyahu’s corruption trial has put a strain on the partnership, as Gantz has accused the prime minister of attempting to weaken their deal so he can remain in office throughout his trial.
The prime minister is charged with fraud, breach of trust and accepting bribes. He is accused of offering favors to powerful media figures for positive news coverage about him and his family.
“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 on Tuesday blamed Blue and White for the political breakdown.
“We are against elections; this is a wrong decision by Blue and White,” Netanyahu said. “But If elections are forced upon us, I promise you we will win.”