Israel’s parliament began rushing through a bill on Wednesday to call a third general election within a year, as talks between embattled premier Benjamin Netanyahu and his centrist rival broke down ahead of a midnight deadline.
A deal to avert a new election must be reached before 11.59 pm.
But Netanyahu and his rival Benny Gantz, both of whom have failed to build a governing majority in the Knesset, or parliament, since a deadlocked vote in September, have spent days trading blame for the failing coalition talks.
On Wednesday morning, the Israeli parliament passed 50-0 preliminary reading of a bill, immediately dissolving parliament and setting a new election for March 2.
It must face three more plenary readings and votes during the day before passing into law.
A new election would be another challenge for Netanyahu — Israel’s longest serving premier, now governing in a caretaker capacity — at a time when he must fend off a leadership vote in his right-wing Likud party.
But it may also be seen as a victory for the incumbent, who faced the risk of major defections from his right wing bloc when he was indicted on corruption charges last month.
Netanyahu and Gantz, a former armed forces chief who heads the centrist Blue and White party, had been discussing a potential unity government, but disagreed on who should lead it.
Following the corruption charges, Gantz called on Netanyahu to step down and encouraged defections among his allies, but they largely stood by the 70-year-old.
Gantz has demanded Netanyahu publicly declare he would not seek parliamentary immunity as a precondition to further talks.
“It now seems that we will be going into a third election cycle today because of Netanyahu’s attempt to obtain immunity,” Gantz told lawmakers on Wednesday. “We must stand in opposition to this.”
On Tuesday night, Netanyahu called on Gantz to stop “spinning.”
“After 80 days, it’s time that for one day, for the citizens of Israel, we sit and have a serious discussion about forming a broad unity government. It’s not too late,” he said on social media.
If confirmed, it would be the first time Israel’s weary electorate has been asked to go to the polls three times within 12 months.
The parties of Netanyahu and Gantz were nearly deadlocked in September’s election, following a similarly inconclusive poll in April.
Israel’s proportional system is reliant on coalition building, and both parties fell well short of the 61 seats needed to command a majority in the 120-seat Knesset.
Both were then given 28-day periods to try and forge a workable coalition but failed, forcing President Reuven Rivlin to turn to parliament with his deadline for Wednesday.
New elections are deeply unpopular with the Israeli public, which has expressed mounting anger and frustration with the entire political class.
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