Israel faces fresh poll as Netanyahu fails to form government

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sits at the plenum at the Knesset, Israel's parliament, in Jerusalem May 30, 2019. REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun

Israeli lawmakers voted to dissolve parliament on Thursday, paving the way for a new election after veteran Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu failed to form a coalition government before a midnight deadline.

Netanyahu preferred a new ballot, set for Sept. 17, to the alternative, under which Israeli President Reuven Rivlin could have asked another politician to try and form a ruling coalition.

The election, Israel’s second this year after an April 9 poll in which Netanyahu claimed victory, means unprecedented upheaval even for a country used to political infighting.

“We will win,” Netanyahu, head of the right-wing Likud party, vowed after parliament voted for a fresh election when the deadline expired for him to assemble his fifth government.

But the need for a rematch was a blow to a combative leader, who has ruled for the past decade but faces looming indictments in three corruption cases.

The turmoil arose – officially, at least – from a feud over military conscription between Netanyahu’s presumed allies: ex-defence minister Avigdor Lieberman, a far-right secularist, and ultra-Orthodox Jewish parties.

Those parties want young religious scholars exempted, en masse from mandatory national service. But Lieberman and many other Israelis say they should share the burden.

Faced with the prospect of having to step aside at the end of a 42-day period to put together a government, Netanyahu instead drummed up votes to dissolve the Knesset, accusing Lieberman of aiming to topple him. Lieberman denied the allegation.

The new election, with coalition-building that could stretch into November, could further delay U.S. efforts to press ahead with President Donald Trump’s forthcoming plan to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Even before it has been announced, Palestinians have spurned the plan — described by Trump as “the deal of the century” — as a blow to their statehood hopes.

“Now it is the deal of the next century,” Palestinian chief negotiator Saeb Erekat told Israel Radio after the new Israeli election was set.

The White House team behind the peace proposal, including Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner, is in the Middle East to drum up support for what he styles as an economic workshop in Bahrain next month to encourage investment in the occupied West Bank and Gaza.

The group planned to meet Netanyahu later on Thursday.

LONG-SERVING PREMIER

First elected in the late 1990s, Netanyahu will in July overtake Israel’s founding father, David Ben-Gurion, as Israel’s longest-serving premier.

But the failed coalition building of a 69-year-old leader, who just weeks ago was hailed by supporters as a political magician, may open rifts and stir up challenges within Likud.

The last election, in which Netanyahu showcased his warm relations with Trump and frequent contacts with Russian President Vladimir Putin, ended with him neck-and-neck with Benny Gantz, a politically untested ex-armed forces chief and head of the centrist Blue and White party.

But Netanyahu was given the nod to form a government after ultranationalist, right-wing and religious party leaders voiced their support.

Dubbed “crime minister” by his opponents, Netanyahu has denied any wrongdoing in the graft investigations he faces. In February, Israel’s attorney general said he intended to charge him with bribery and fraud. Netanyahu, who denies wrongdoing, faces a pre-trial hearing in October.

Until the coalition collapsed, public attention had been focussed on moves by Netanyahu loyalists to grant the prime minister immunity from criminal prosecution and to pass a law ensuring such protection could not be withdrawn by the Supreme Court.