TEL AVIV—Israel’s Parliament was dissolved after the short-lived unity government led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu failed to pass a new budget, sending the country to a fourth election in less than two years.
The parties making up Mr. Netanyahu’s coalition—which have been squabbling over senior judicial appointments and power-sharing since the government’s inception this past spring—failed to agree on a new budget in time for a midnight deadline on Tuesday. The result was the automatic dissolution of the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, which triggered fresh national elections that are set to be held on March 23, according to the parliament’s speaker.
The new bout of political instability in Israel comes amid the coronavirus pandemic and deep economic turmoil. It presents a fresh challenge for Mr. Netanyahu, who is facing possibly the toughest phase of a storied political career. He is standing trial for corruption, even as he oversees a rapid rollout of a Covid-19 vaccine and works to stem the economic damage the pandemic has wrought on the country.
The collapse brings to an end a government that was established only in May, when Benny Gantz, leader of the centrist Blue and White party, set aside his opposition to joining a Netanyahu government and agreed to form a unity coalition that would guide the country through the twin coronavirus and economic crises.
That agreement came after three elections in the space of a year produced a stalemate, in which Mr. Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud party won the most votes but fell short of enough parliamentary seats to form a coalition. Polls currently project a similar deadlock.
The partnership was fraught from the start, with the parties cooperating on little except for combating Covid-19.
Messrs. Netanyahu and Gantz have each blamed the other for the collapse of the government and for forcing another national vote on the country.
“Netanyahu is taking us to elections just so he won’t enter a courthouse. Every other version is a trick or a shtick,” Mr. Gantz tweeted Tuesday night.
Had a budget been passed, Mr. Netanyahu would have been obligated to hand over the prime minister’s seat to Mr. Gantz in late 2021, according to a power-sharing agreement the two struck this spring.
Mr. Netanyahu’s political rivals and analysts say the premier used his power over the finance ministry to prevent a budget from passing and thereby remain the prime minister.
“The reason we’re heading to an election is because Netanyahu refused to pass a budget as required by law and honor political agreements so that he can remain in power,” said Yohanan Plesner, president of the Jerusalem-based Israel Democracy Institute.
Mr. Netanyahu denies using the budget to stay in power. The coalition pact called for a two-year budget for 2020 and 2021 to be passed this year. But Mr. Netanyahu argued that the lack of economic clarity generated by the pandemic called for delaying the passing of the 2021 part of the budget.
Mr. Netanyahu said that while he had hoped to avoid an election, he was confident he would emerge victorious. He will remain prime minister until the next vote but can’t fire Mr. Gantz or any ministers brought into the government by Mr. Gantz under the rules of their coalition agreement.
“The majority of the public sees our great achievements and leadership. We are bringing millions of vaccines, bringing four peace agreements, curbing the Iran threat, and transforming Israel into one of the world’s leading economies,” Mr. Netanyahu said in a Tuesday evening television address.
In recent months, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco have agreed to normalize relations with Israel, in a series of U.S. brokered deals known as the Abraham Accords.
After widespread dissatisfaction with his government’s handling of the virus earlier this year, Mr. Netanyahu is now overseeing a rapid-fire Covid-19 vaccination campaign that, if successful, could bolster his political fortunes ahead of the vote.
This week, Israel kicked off its vaccination campaign, starting with health-care workers and expanding to those over 60, as the small Middle Eastern country aims to be among the first in the world to inoculate the majority of its population by early spring.
At the same time, Mr. Netanyahu’s corruption trial continues. He has denied wrongdoing and has said the corruption probes are politically motivated and aimed at forcing him from power. Early next year, witness testimony begins, coming just when an electoral campaign will be in full swing.
A March election would be the latest chapter in Mr. Netanyahu’s yearslong campaign for political survival. He has extricated himself from many tight spots over the years and has outmaneuvered rivals who hoped to unseat him, including an attempt earlier this year to remove him as head of the Likud party. His survival skills have earned him the nickname “the Magician.”
Mr. Gantz has paid a heavy political price for joining with Mr. Netanyahu. His Blue and White party is projected to win between five to seven seats this time, down from more than 30 in the past three ballots.
Unlike the last three votes, in which center-left battled against parties representing right-wing voters and religious voters, polls show the next vote will likely be a showdown within Israel’s right-wing camp over whether Mr. Netanyahu should remain the standard-bearer for the right.
“Netanyahu can’t give Israel the unity and stability it needs. The most important thing right now is to replace Netanyahu,” said Gideon Saar, who left Mr. Netanyahu’s Likud party earlier this month and hopes to replace him as prime minister.
Write to Felicia Schwartz at [email protected]
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Appeared in the December 23, 2020, print edition as ‘Israel Faces Another Election After Knesset Is Dissolved.’