New Israel polls loom as kingmaker not backing anyone

Both had sought to persuade Lieberman's nationalist Yisrael Beitenu party, which holds the balance of power, to join them in a coalition. Reuters

Israel edged closer to a third general election in a year Wednesday, as kingmaker Avigdor Lieberman refused to back either incumbent Benjamin Netanyahu or challenger Benny Gantz for prime minister ahead of a midnight deadline.

Right-wing incumbent Netanyahu and centrist Gantz were nearly deadlocked after September elections, with neither able to command a majority in Israel's 120-seat parliament.

Both had sought to persuade Lieberman's nationalist Yisrael Beitenu party, which holds the balance of power, to join them in a coalition.

Netanyahu was first given 28 days to form a ruling coalition but failed, so President Reuven Rivlin granted Gantz a similar timeframe, now due to expire at 23:59 (2159 GMT) Wednesday.

But Lieberman said Wednesday he thought new elections were inevitable.

"Both are responsible" for the impasse, he said of Gantz and Netanyahu.

"I have done everything in my power to form a unity government," Lieberman added.

"If we are dragged to new elections it will be because of a lack of leadership."

If Gantz cannot cut a deal, lawmakers will have 21 days to propose to Rivlin a candidate capable of forming a majority.

If that period passes without a breakthrough, new elections will be called for early 2020 -- the third in a year.

Polls held last April also led to stalemate in a proportional system reliant on coalition building.

 

 

A 60-year-old former paratrooper, Gantz had no previous political experience when he declared himself Netanyahu's electoral rival in December.

But he has posed the most serious challenge to Netanyahu since he became premier in 2009.

Netanyahu, who is also fighting corruption allegations which he denies, has remained caretaker leader.

Lieberman's Yisrael Beitenu has eight parliamentary seats and his backing could be enough to put either Netanyahu or Gantz into power.

But the former defence minister has proved a reluctant kingmaker.

He has been wary of backing Gantz, because even if he did they would fall short of a majority, needing at least the tacit support of the Arab Joint List to govern.

Lieberman, a right winger known for his tough rhetoric on Gaza, has reiterated his opposition to allying with Arabs.

He also accuses Netanyahu of being captive to the whims of ultra-Orthodox Jews who make up around 10 percent of the population, objecting to the community's exemption from military service.

Instead he called for a unity deal between his party, Netanyahu's Likud and Gantz's Blue and White coalition.

Both said they supported the idea including rotating the premiership, but disagreed who should go first.

Blue and White demanded Gantz get first go since his party won the most seats, 33 compared with the Likud's 32.

Talks continued late into Tuesday but collapsed with mutual accusations of blame.

"Unfortunately, during our meeting last night, Benny Gantz refused to accept the conditions put by Avigdor Lieberman, that is, to accept the president's solution that, as prime minister, I will be the first in rotation," Netanyahu said Wednesday.

Speaking later, he said he was still open to a deal.

"Gantz, it is not too late. Let's sit down tonight and announce the formation of a national unity government," he said in a press conference.

"We are living at a turning point in our history and what we need now is a national unity government."

But Gantz accused Netanyahu of "rejecting unity" and doing everything he could to "drag us into elections for a third time".

 

 

All sides said they remained committed to avoiding a third election, which would be deeply unpopular with the public.

But columnist Ben Caspit, writing in the Maariv daily Wednesday, said it was now all but inevitable.

"The path towards establishing a government in Israel has never been at a greater impasse," he wrote.

"We are going to need a miracle to avert a third election."

Netanyahu also faces a threat to his political career from the corruption allegations.

Attorney-General Avichai Mandelblit is due to decide by December whether to charge him over a series of accusations he denies.

An indictment might permanently damage Netanyahu's support, whereas a reprieve could give him a new lease of life.

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