Israel has never before held two elections in the space of a year. Now it is facing the prospect of a third. After rerun polls in September, neither Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu nor his centrist challenger Benny Gantz has succeeded in forming a government, raising the probability of yet another vote early next year.
Now, Netanyahu is being criminally charged with fraud, breach of trust and accepting bribes, according to the Associated Press, adding to the already tumultuous political landscape.
On Wednesday night, Gantz, leader of the centrist Blue and White party, announced that he had been unable to forge a governing coalition. Israel’s political quagmire began after Netanyahu called early elections last November. But following a narrow victory in April he was unable to muster sufficient parliamentary support in Israel’s coalition-dependent system. After he failed to do so again following September elections, Israel’s President handed Gantz the mandate.
In a televised statement Wednesday that denounced Netanyahu’s adherence to his traditional ultra-religious allies, Gantz said he would “not cooperate in an effort to not turn the majority of people to a hostage being held by a small minority of extremists.” Gantz also railed against Netanyahu’s smear campaign against Israel’s Arab population (who make up a fifth of the country), which he described as an attempt to foment “civil war.”
“I was willing to make far-reaching compromises toward forming a stable unity government,” Gantz told reporters in a separate statement, “But Israel’s interest comes before all else. Above all other considerations.”
On Thursday, the Israeli President Reuven Rivlin told parliament to find a new prime minister who can command the support of a majority of members of parliament by Dec. 11, or face a third election in early 2020. It marked the first time in Israeli history that the president has been forced to ask parliament to find a government. “The disruptive politics must end,” Rivlin said.
Later on Thursday, Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit announced criminal charges against Netanyahu, that include allegations of trading favors with a newspaper publisher and a telecom magnate and accepting thousands of dollars in cigars and champaign from wealthy friends, according to the AP.
Here’s what to know about the deadlock and how it could eventually be broken.
What stopped Netanyahu and Gantz forming a government?
Secular ultra nationalist Avigdor Lieberman—Netanyahu’s former defense minister—sunk Netanyau’s attempt to form a government back in May, when Lieberman insisted on the passage of a bill mandating Ultra Orthodox Jews to serve in the military. That was unpalatable to Netanyahu’s allies on the religious right. After September elections handed Lieberman a larger share of the vote and fortified his position as kingmaker, he again refused to budge on the military service issue, scuppering Netanyahu’s second attempt to unite the right.
Like Netanyahu and Gantz, Lieberman has professed support for a so-called government of national unity, melding Netanyahu’s right wing Likud with Gantz’ Blue and White party. But negotiations hit a sticking point: Gantz refused to agree on a prime ministerial rotation agreement with Netanyahu, in part because of corruption charges looming over the prime minister; Netanhayu refused to abandon his Ultra Orthodox allies on the right; and Netanyahu’s Likud party members refused to jettison their leader.
An outside option had been a minority center-left government backed by Israel’s Arab-dominated parties, who together comprise the third largest voting bloc in the Knesset. Ayman Odeh, the leader of a coalition of Arab-dominated parties, made such a scenario possible by taking the historic step in September of endorsing a Zionist prime minister: Gantz. But Lieberman, whose backing Gantz would have also required, said a minority government would be a “disaster” for Israel. At a news conference on Wednesday, Lieberman called Arab political leaders a “fifth column.” That was a slur straight out of Netanyahu’s playbook. The prime minister has long been accused of incitement against Israel’s Arab population—including saying on Nov. 17 that a government dependent on the support of Arab parties would be an “immediate existential threat to Israel’s security” and accused them of being terrorist sympathizers.
Is there going to be a third election?
It looks likely. Israel’s parliament, the Knesset, now has 21 days to nominate a candidate for prime minister: that could be Netanyahu, Gantz, or someone new. Should at least 61 of the Knesset’s 120 lawmakers fail to agree on a candidate within the allotted time, the Knesset will dissolve and Israelis will head to the polls yet again in Spring 2020.
A third election would cost the equivalent of $750 million, the New York Times reports, about a third of Israel’s current budget deficit. It is also unclear it would break the deadlock: voting patterns in Israel’s September elections closely mirrored those in April.
To avoid a third election, lawmakers would most likely have to agree on one of the three scenarios on which Gantz, Netanyahu, and Lieberman could not settle. Namely: Gantz and Netanyahu share the prime ministership; some Likud members defect to the center left; or ultra nationalists agree to sit with either Ultra Orthodox or Arab-dominated parties.
What could break the deadlock?
Two scenarios could alter the Knesset’s calculus: Netanyahu’s indictment or serious military confrontation.
To avoid appearing to interfere in the political process, Israel’s Supreme Court Justice had delayed his announcement on Netanyahu’s expected indictment. Now that Gantz has conceded that he can’t form a government, the announcement could come as early as Thursday. Indictment on the most serious of the three corruption charges he faces would make it near impossible for Netanyahu to form a government either before or after a third election, Israel’s Haaretz newspaper reports. But if only the lesser two of the three charges stick, he might still be in with a chance.
Outside the domestic sphere, a serious military escalation could force Knesset members to set aside their differences and unite behind one candidate. Rising tension between Israel and Iran means that is not out of the question. On November 13 an Israeli airstrike killed a senior commander of the Gaza-based militant group Palestinian Islamic Jihad, which is supported by Iran. That precipitated a flurry of rockets from the Hamas-administered Gaza Strip and a military response from Israel that left 34 Palestinians dead, including an airstrike that Palestinian medics say killed eight civilians, with five children among them. Israel is also preparing for escalation on its northern border after its military launched airstrikes that killed 21 people in Syria on Wednesday, according to a monitor. Those attacks on Iranian and Syrian “terror targets”, came in response to four rockets launched from Syria at the Israel-controlled Golan Heights, a rocky plateau in Southwestern Syria that Israel seized in 1967.
What does the Israel’s deadlock mean for President Trump’s White House?
Trump’s White House has made no secret of its support for Netanyahu. Shortly before Israel’s April elections, Trump gave Netanyahu a boost by recognizing Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights. And earlier this week—breaking with decades of U.S. policy— the White House announced it would no longer consider Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank illegal. While both Netanyahu and Gantz publicly welcomed the move, experts told TIME it appeared designed to handicap Israel’s centrists. Nimrod Novik, Israel Fellow at the Israel Policy Forum, a U.S. organization that supports a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, said in a statement that the Trump Administration “keeps empowering our Messianic, annexationist minority.”
Nevertheless, the chances the full version of the White House’s long-billed “Middle East Peace Plan” will be revealed are slimmer than ever. Yossi Mekelberg, an Israel expert at London-based think tank Chatham House says the political deadlock provides another excuse to delay it. “There is no ‘Deal of the Century,’” Mekelberg says. “If settlements are legal, and Jerusalem is the capital of Israel, not of Palestine, and refugees don’t exist, I’m not sure what we are negotiating.”