Israel election: New poll due after unity government crumbles

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Israel is to hold its fourth elections in two years after the two main parties in its unity government failed to meet a deadline in a row over state budgets.

Voters will return to the polls in March, just 12 months after the last round.

Two previous elections were inconclusive, resulting in a rare government of national unity.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, on trial for alleged corruption, is hoping to return to office for a sixth time.

He denies the criminal charges against him, dismissing them as politically motivated.

At midnight (22:00 GMT Tuesday), Israel’s parliament, the Knesset, was automatically dissolved as required by law after a deadline to pass the 2020 state budget expired.

An 11th-hour attempt to avoid this failed after a bill to allow more time was voted down, against expectations.

Hours before the midnight deadline expired, Netanyahu, leader of the right-wing Likud party, and his political rival Benny Gantz of the centrist Blue and White, blamed each other for the crisis.

“I did not want this election,”  Netanyahu told reporters. “Likud did not want this election. We have voted again and again against elections. Unfortunately, Benny Gantz reneged on his agreements with us.”

He said Likud would “win big” at the poll, due on 23 March.

Gantz said the prime minister’s remarks were “more lies than words”. He said  Netanyahu wanted to trigger the election in a bid to avoid his corruption trial.

The two men have shared power since April in an uneasy coalition, agreeing to rotate as prime minister, with  Netanyahu holding office first before a scheduled handover to Gantz in November 2021.

Analysts say the dispute affords Netanyahu a favourable way to end the coalition due to a loophole in the pact under which the premiership would pass to the other leader for an interim three months if either party triggered elections, apart from in the case of failure to pass the budget.

Recent polls indicate that support for Blue and White has collapsed, and while backing for Likud has dipped it would theoretically return as the largest party.