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Israel Appears Headed to Third Election, as Netanyahu Clings to Office

JERUSALEM — Israel appears headed to a record third straight election as a midnight deadline approaches on Wednesday with neither Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu nor his chief rival, Benny Gantz, edging back from the brinkmanship that has kept the country’s future on hold for nearly a year.

Barring an 11th-hour surprise, Mr. Netanyahu and Mr. Gantz, a former army chief who leads the centrist Blue and White party, will try again for a more decisive outcome in another parliamentary election on March 2. Votes in April and September ended in deadlock.

This time, however, Mr. Netanyahu will have to campaign as a defendant in three criminal cases: He was indicted Nov. 21 on bribery and other corruption charges. He is also now contending with a noisy rebellion in the ranks of his own conservative Likud party, from a growing contingent of local officials and activists who fear that his refusal to step aside could hand power to Israel’s center-left coalition. Likud on Wednesday tentatively called a primary contest for the party’s leadership on Dec. 26.

So far, Mr. Netanyahu has managed to keep the rebels largely at bay by encouraging his political base to rage against the criminal justice system, fulminating against the news media and political rivals to his left, and dangling promises to the right that he can capitalize on his close ties to the Trump administration to deliver historic achievements, including annexing territory in the occupied West Bank, if he keeps his job.

Though there is plenty of blame to go around for the drawn-out political logjam, public opinion polls, along with critics across the political spectrum, have pointed above all to Mr. Netanyahu’s insistence on remaining prime minister in the coming months, under any circumstances, despite — if not because of — his legal predicament.

By clinging to office, analysts say, Mr. Netanyahu would at least leave himself in better position to negotiate a plea bargain with state prosecutors, and could perhaps avoid trial altogether in exchange for retiring from public life.

He has also clung to his broader alliance of right-wing and religious parties, possibly in the hope that a new election would improve his chances of securing a majority willing to grant him parliamentary immunity.

Any hopes that Mr. Netanyahu’s indictment would catalyze a decisive shift in public opinion have been suppressed by frequent polls showing that another contest between Mr. Netanyahu and Mr. Gantz would result in the same stalemate: Blue and White nearly always comes out slightly ahead, but falls short of enough partners to form a majority coalition.

A poll on Tuesday by Israel’s Channel 13, however, showed Blue and White opening up a four-seat lead over Likud, and the anti-Netanyahu parties combined reaching 60 seats, compared to 52 seats for the prime minister’s party and its allies. A 61-seat majority is needed to form a government.

Parliament approved the first of several votes on Wednesday to disband itself and call new elections on March 2, adding to the improbability that a government could be formed before the midnight deadline.

Mr. Gantz’s chances in a third round of elections also may have improved after his No. 2 in Blue and White, the former foreign minister Yair Lapid, agreed Monday to give up his longstanding insistence on eventually succeeding Mr. Gantz as party leader, and potentially as prime minister.

Mr. Lapid carries heavy baggage in some quarters: Polls have shown that his rotation agreement with Mr. Gantz was costing Blue and White two to four seats in Parliament.

Israelis may be heading back to the polls in a fog of unprecedented and unresolved legal problems.

While the law allows an indicted prime minister to remain in office, it says nothing about whether a candidate charged with serious offenses should be allowed to form a new government.

Israel’s attorney general, Avichai Mandelblit, has so far avoided issuing an opinion on that question, saying it was still only theoretical. But on Monday, the Supreme Court, grappling with a private petition on the matter, asked him to say by next week if or when he would clarify his views.

The brewing revolt within Likud adds to the challenges facing Mr. Netanyahu. Gideon Saar, a popular former government minister, has drawn a growing number of local officials into open opposition to Mr. Netanyahu. The only contender so far who has pledged to challenge Mr. Netanyahu in the party’s primary contest, Mr. Saar has argued that a third election with Mr. Netanyahu in charge could cost the right its hold on power.

Mr. Saar’s campaign has unfurled a growing list of endorsements by Likud mayors, party leaders and officials in West Bank settlements.

“There’s been no proper government in Israel for more than a year and there’s no end in sight,” said Shimon Lankri, the Likud mayor of Acre, explaining why he switched to support Mr. Saar.

And in the newspaper Maariv on Monday, the conservative journalist Kalman Liebeskind warned that Mr. Netanyahu was driving the right wing in Israeli politics to disaster.

“When the company commander is injured in the course of a charge,” he wrote, “the most foolish decision that his troops can make is to remain around him, to weep with him over his terrible fate and to try to carry him forward on their backs.”

As the calls for Mr. Netanyahu to step aside have grown louder, he has fashioned an elaborate argument for why he should be allowed to continue as prime minister, at least for the first six months of a rotation agreement with Mr. Gantz.

Given the Trump administration’s favorable disposition toward Mr. Netanyahu, he has argued, Israel’s right wing has a window of opportunity — which could close as the 2020 presidential election heats up, let alone if Mr. Trump is defeated — to press Mr. Trump for important new favors.

Chief among them is approval for Israel’s annexation of the Jordan Valley, a loosely populated agricultural region where Mr. Netanyahu insists Israel must maintain a military presence under any settlement with the Palestinians.

Mr. Netanyahu announced that he had spoken of the idea with President Trump in a phone call on Dec. 1, and then with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo at a meeting in Lisbon on Dec. 4. But David Schenker, the assistant secretary of state for Near East affairs, told reporters on Friday that Mr. Netanyahu had presented Mr. Pompeo no formal plan for annexing the area, and reaffirmed the administration’s view that “the ultimate disposition of territory is to be determined between the parties,” not through unilateral moves.

Mr. Netanyahu is also talking up a defense treaty with the United States, although Israeli military leaders have long downplayed the wisdom of such an agreement, saying that Israel can already count on American support whenever it is needed and that a formal pact could tie Israel’s hands in a regional conflict.

On the right, some of Mr. Netanyahu’s defenders have pinned the continued political impasse on Mr. Gantz for refusing to enter a unity government led by Mr. Netanyahu, if only for a few months, or on Avigdor Liberman, the leader of the ultranationalist, secular Yisrael Beiteinu party and a former Netanyahu ally who broke ranks with the right-wing, religious alliance.

Holding a third election will cost at least $ 500 million, officials say, including the cost to the economy of Israelis getting the day off to vote. Many have called that senseless at a time when the government is grappling with deficits, hospitals are overflowing with patients and the military is waiting to get its next five-year spending plan approved.

About the only thing the parties have managed to agree on is a new election date — and, in typical Israeli fashion, not without Talmudic debate.

The first Tuesday in March was ruled out because it falls on the day of a memorial for fallen soldiers whose places of burial are unknown. The second Tuesday is Purim, the rare Jewish feast when revelers often drink themselves into oblivion, not the best day to perform a sober civic duty.

The third Tuesday coincides with the anniversary of the death of an obscure Hasidic rabbi. Ultra-Orthodox parties were concerned that too many of their voters would be out of the country that day, making pilgrimages to the rabbi’s grave in Poland.

So, casting the Tuesday tradition to the wind, lawmakers have agreed to set the third election for Monday, March 2.

But even that date is not without its problems: It falls smack in the middle of the policy conference of Aipac, the pro-Israel lobbying group, which is the destination for a yearly pilgrimage to Washington by major Israeli politicians.

Source: NYT > World News

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