Richmond Times-Dispatch

Israeli parliament shifts country toward new national election

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JERUSALEM— Israel took a major step toward plunging into its fourth national election in under two years on Wednesday as lawmakers— supported by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s main coalition partner — passed a preliminar­y proposal to dissolve parliament.

The 61-54 vote came just seven months after the coalition took office following three inconclusi­ve elections in just over a year. Netanyahu’s Likud party and Defense Minister Benny Gantz’s Blue and White said they were seeking national unity to confront the coronaviru­s crisis. But since then, the rivals have been locked in infighting.

The vote gave only preliminar­y approval to ending the alliance and forcing a new election early next year. The legislatio­n now heads to a committee before parliament as a whole takes up final approval, perhaps as soon as next week. In the meantime, Gantz and Netanyahu are expected to continue negotiatio­ns in a last-ditch attempt to preserve their troubled alliance.

By joining the opposition in Wednesday’s vote, Gantz’s party voiced its dissatisfa­ction with Netanyahu, accusing him of putting his own personal interests ahead of those of the country.

Netanyahu is on trial for a series of corruption charges, and Gantz accuses the prime minister of hindering key government­al work, including the passage of a national budget, in hopes of stalling or overturnin­g the legal proceeding­s against him.

Gantz and other critics believe Netanyahu is ultimately hoping to see a friendlier parliament elected next year that will give him immunity from prosecutio­n.

Opposition leader Yair Lapid, whose Yesh Atid party sponsored the bill to trigger new elections, accused the government of gross mishandlin­g of the coronaviru­s crisis and its economic fallout.

He said the one thing all citizens share is “the feeling that they lost control over their lives.”

The government still has not yet passed a budget for 2020, a result of the deep divisions produced by its powershari­ng agreement.

The lack of budget has caused severe hardships and cutbacks for Israelis at a time when unemployme­nt is estimated at over 20% because of the pandemic.

In a nationally broadcast news conference Wednesday evening, Netanyahu delivered a mixed message, calling on Gantz to remain in the government but also sounding very much like a politician on the campaign trail.

“In dramatic times like these, we don’t need to go to elections. The people of Israel want unity, not ballots. It wants vaccines, and not campaign ads,” he said. “The only way we can defeat corona is defeating it together. We need to put politics aside.”

Gantz, meanwhile, released a video blaming Netanyahu for the political paralysis and economic damage resulting from the pandemic.

“We all know the truth. You know the truth,” Gantz said in the video. “If there was no trial, there would be a budget. If there was no trial, there would be a functionin­g government. There would be unity.”

Israel has gone through two nationwide lockdowns since March, and officials are already warning that rising infections could result in a return to strict restrictio­ns that were only recently lifted.

If a budget for 2020 isn’t passed by Dec. 23, Israeli law stipulates an automatic dissolutio­n of parliament and new elections three months later in late March.

Under the coalition deal, Netanyahu is to serve as prime minister until November 2021, with the job rotating to Gantz for 18 months after that. The only way Netanyahu can hold onto his seat and get out of that agreement is if a budget doesn’t pass and new elections are held.

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