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Israel inches closer to early election amid feud between Netanyahu, Gantz

Click to play video 'Thousands of Israelis protest against Prime Minister Netanyahu in Jerusalem' Thousands of Israelis protest against Prime Minister Netanyahu in Jerusalem
WATCH: Thousands of Israelis protest against Prime Minister Netanyahu in Jerusalem – Sep 5, 2020

Israel edged closer on Wednesday towards a fourth national election in two years after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s main governing partner, Benny Gantz, backed an opposition move to dissolve parliament.

Parliament gave preliminary approval to a dissolution bill, but the legislation needs to pass three as yet unscheduled votes to become law, giving Netanyahu and Gantz, the defence minister, more time to work out differences over a national budget.

The coalition crisis could plunge Israel into more political uncertainty as it prepares for a new U.S. administration led by Joe Biden, deals with the coronavirus pandemic and awaits Iran’s next moves after the assassination of its top nuclear scientist last week, a killing that Tehran blamed on Israel.

Read more: Israelis protest against Netanyahu despite coronavirus cases surging to record levels

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“The ‘anyone but Bibi’ camp is dragging Israel towards unnecessary elections,” Mikki Zohar, a senior legislator from Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud party, wrote on Twitter, using the 71-year-old prime minister’s nickname.

Under a “rotation” arrangement that was part of a coalition deal in May, Gantz, head of the centrist Blue and White party, is due to take over from Israel’s longest-serving leader in November 2021.

But even as the pact was being inked, amid promises of political unity in dealing with Israel’s many challenges, few political commentators believed Netanyahu, on trial for alleged corruption which he denies, would relinquish his powerful post.

“Now is not the time for elections. It is now time for unity,” Netanyahu said on Tuesday.

Click to play video 'Thousands protest against Israel’s Netanyahu over economy, corruption allegations' Thousands protest against Israel’s Netanyahu over economy, corruption allegations
Thousands protest against Israel’s Netanyahu over economy, corruption allegations – Aug 15, 2020

With final passage of the dissolution bill still uncertain, the budget dispute could in itself trigger a new election. Under law, failure to pass a budget by a Dec. 23 deadline means Israel would go to the polls in March.

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Timing

Strategic timing for an early ballot could be crucial as Netanyahu weighs another fight for political survival after failing to win outright elections in April and September 2019 and in March this year in which Gantz was his main rival.

Read more: Thousands rally for weekly anti-Netanyahu protests in Israel

Netanyahu, who has led Israel since 2009 after serving a first term as premier from 1996 to 1999, has been facing a wave of street protests against his alleged corruption, which he denies, and his handling of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Gantz has seen his popularity drop after alienating supporters by reneging on election promises not to join up with Netanyahu.

“Netanyahu prefers a May-June (election date) with a coronavirus vaccine and breathing space for businesses,” YNet News political reporter Moran Azulay wrote. “Gantz wants quick elections to stop Netanyahu organizing.”

Click to play video 'Police in Israel arrest 12 during anti-Netanyahu protests' Police in Israel arrest 12 during anti-Netanyahu protests
Police in Israel arrest 12 during anti-Netanyahu protests – Aug 1, 2020

But in a speech on Tuesday in which he called Netanyahu a “serial deal-breaker,” Gantz said the prime minister’s agreement on a budget could avert moves towards a new election.

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Netanyahu has resisted Gantz’s demand for a two-year budget timeframe, covering 2020 and 2021, which would remove a tool the prime minister could use to avoid giving up his job to the defense chief.

If a 2021 budget needs to be passed separately, failure to do so by March would automatically lead to an election, several months before Gantz is due to become prime minister.