Israelis contend with reality of third straight election

Israelis are grappling with the confounding reality of an unprecedented third straight national vote in less than a year

JERUSALEM -- Israelis were grappling on Thursday with the confounding reality of unprecedented third national elections in less than a year, after Parliament was dissolved and the date for the next vote was set — further extending months of political paralysis that has gripped the country.

Legislators passed a motion earlier to hold elections on March 2, hours after the deadline to form a coalition government expired. The motion passed with a 94-0 vote in the house.

That now triggers a nearly three-month-long campaign ahead of the vote that most polls predict will not produce dramatically different results that led to the current logjam.

Israel has been mired in political deadlock for months, after two inconclusive elections and failed attempts by both Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his chief rival, former army chief Benny Gantz, to cobble together coalition governments.

During government negotiations, both sides professed eagerness to reach a power-sharing agreement, but could not agree on its composition nor who would lead it. Netanyahu insisted on serving as prime minister, where he is best positioned to fight his recent indictment on a series of corruption charges. Gantz has refused to serve under a prime minister with such serious legal problems and called on Likud to choose a different leader.

Likud has seen a burgeoning insurrection by lawmaker Gideon Saar, who says the party needs a new leader because Netanyahu has been unable to form a government. Primaries are set for later this month, but fewer than a handful of Likud legislators have fallen behind Saar and Netanyahu is expected to be returned to party leadership, despite the political disarray and his legal woes.

Netanyahu faces charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust in three corruption cases in which he is accused of trading legislative or regulatory favors in exchange for lavish gifts or favorable media coverage. Netanyahu denies wrongdoing.

Netanyahu had hoped for a sweeping victory in April's elections, winning him a majority that would grant him immunity from prosecution. He can can now hope that the next election delivers him a more favorable result. Netanyahu’s trial is on hold until the immunity issue is resolved, a process that is expected to take months.

After the March election, he also could use coalition negotiations as leverage to push potential partners to support his immunity request.

Under Israeli law, a sitting prime minister charged with a crime is not required to step down. But Netanyahu's opponents argue he cannot guide the country through its myriad challenges while fighting his legal battles.

”The suicidal tailspin on the political system this past year originated with one person: Benjamin Netanyahu," wrote columnist Yossi Verter in the liberal Haaretz.

“This election campaign, like its two predecessors in April and September, is the result of his ongoing escape from a trial that is likely to end in prison," Verter said.