The Israeli government collapsed after failing to approve a budget on Tuesday, sparking a political crisis which will plunge the country into a fourth round of elections within two years.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his coalition partner Benny Gantz missed Tuesday midnight deadline to pass a budget for this year, after parliament voted down their bid for a further delay.
The former political rivals blamed each other for the impasse, which came seven months into their fragile political alliance.
“I did not want elections,” Mr Netanyahu told parliament on Tuesday evening, accusing Mr Gantz of dragging the country to the polls and vowing to win.
The coalition was granted an extension to the budget timeline in August but proved incapable of agreeing to a financial blueprint in the interim.
The bill narrowly rejected by legislators on Monday would have postponed the 2020 budget deadline until the end of the year and set early January to approve economic plans for 2021.
Mr Gantz accused Mr Netanyahu and Finance Minister Israel Katz of being “wildly irresponsible”.
“Denying the country a budget for six months in flagrant violation of their commitment, and all out of narrow, self-serving personal considerations,” Mr Gantz wrote on Facebook.
The coalition deal initially stipulated a two-year budget be agreed, but Mr Netanyahu in recent months pushed for a plan covering only 2020. The prime minister denied accusations that he was seeking a way to avoid handing the leadership over to Mr Gantz in November next year.
Their inability to find a solution prompted parliament to be automatically dissolved and Israeli authorities will be forced to schedule elections, which will probably be in late March.
The most recent national vote was on March 2, just days before the World Health Organisation declared the spread of Covid-19 a pandemic. At the time, Israel had recorded barely a dozen cases of coronavirus, while special polling stations were set up for those in home quarantine.
The pandemic has since killed more than 3,000 people in Israel, according to health ministry, while more than 380,000 cases have been recorded in the country of nine million.
The political deadlock comes as the Israeli government considers tightened restrictions amid a rise in infections. Although Israel’s coronavirus vaccination drive started this week, it is unclear how authorities would organise elections during the pandemic.
It is unlikely that another election will resolve the political inertia, which has led Israelis to the polls three times since April 2019.
Netanyahu not on track for majority
A poll published on Sunday by Channel 13 showed Mr Netanyahu’s Likud party coming top with 28 seats, but falling far short of a majority in the 120-seat parliament.
The decision this month by legislator Gideon Saar to defect from Likud has also shaken up the political scene, with his New Hope party gaining 19 seats in the poll.
Mr Saar's initial success comes in the wake of six months of protest against the prime minister, with Israelis calling on him to step down over his handling of the coronavirus crisis and corruption allegations.
Mr Netanyahu in May became the first sitting Israeli leader to stand trial for corruption, with three cases brought against him including allegations of receiving luxury gifts and seeking favourable media coverage.
Israelis have been losing faith in their longest-serving leader, with more than 62 per cent saying the prime minister lacked credibility in a recent poll by the Israel Democracy Institute.
The figure stood just below 60 per cent for Mr Gantz, whose political career may end at the coming election.
The former army chief broke a central campaign pledge by entering government with Mr Netanyahu, prompting the division of his Blue and White party, and is set to win only five seats according to the Channel 13 poll.
“For a former chief of staff, it’s really tragic to see him falling this way, but it was expected,” said Amal Jamal, a politics professor at Tel Aviv University.
Although Mr Netanyahu will fare better than Mr Gantz at the polls, he would benefit from later elections when Israel has started to recover from the pandemic.
“It’s a lose-lose game” for both candidates, said the professor. “It’s not the best situation for him [Netanyahu], we’re going to another lockdown, coronavirus is spreading very fast.”
With no clear path to form a stable government for any party chief, Prof Jamal warned the next vote may not end the political turmoil.
“We may expect another round of elections,” he said. “A fifth round of elections.”