Even as it cements ties with a swathe of the Arab world, Israel faces political uncertainty once again with a dispute over the national budget forcing the country to embark on a fourth parliamentary election inside two years.
The snap election has been called for March and follows irreconcilable differences within the ruling coalition on passing a budget by December 22.
While Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu wanted the budget to cover the current year, his coalition partner, Defence Minister Benny Gantz wanted one for 2020 and 2021, arguing that the country needed stability in fiscal policy in these difficult times. Under a power-sharing deal reached between Mr Netanyahu’s Likud party and Mr Gantz’s Blue and White party, the two were to occupy office as Prime Minister for 18 months each.
Mr Netanyahu opposed a budget for 2021, a political tactic his critics say was aimed at ensuring the coalition’s instability so that he could pull the rug from under Mr Gantz’s feet just when it was time for him to rule.
A bitter Mr Gantz has blamed the Prime Minister of forcing an election to ensure that legal proceedings pending against him get quashed.
Taking to social media, he said, “Netanyahu is taking us to an election for the sole purpose of not going to jail.”
In many respects, Mr Netanyahu is gambling both for his political survival as well as to evade prosecution on serious criminal charges.
Already, he faces widespread condemnation for his handling of the coronavirus epidemic with thousands of Israelis having taken to the streets in protests that have even reached his residence in Jerusalem.
Tacitly acknowledging the public anger, Mr Netanyahu said in a television address on Tuesday that his government had arranged for millions of doses of vaccine to be delivered to the country.
A March election is seen in many respects as a last roll of the dice for it will be held at a time that Mr Netanyahu faces strong headwinds, principally on account of the fact that he will be forced to campaign even as his trial on charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust gets underway.
In addition, the Israeli leader has in the past profited from the strong support he received from US President Donald Trump, a factor that will not be in play with a change of guard in Washington. Finally, he will face a formidable challenge from influential right-winger Gideon Saar who recently broke away from Likud to form his own party. An opinion poll conducted by Israel’s public television network shows Mr Saar drawing level with Mr Netanyahu in popularity.
Mr Gantz, too, is none too fortuitously placed with his Blue and White party having splintered over his decision to enter a coalition. Polls suggest the party may win only a handful of seats.