JERUSALEM — Israel’s government teetered on the brink of collapse on Tuesday, a building crisis that looks likely to push the country into yet another early election — the fourth in two years.
The Israeli Parliament was expected to dissolve itself at midnight on Tuesday. That would force a new election after weeks of infighting and paralysis in the so-called unity government, an uneasy coalition sworn in just seven months ago that paired Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s conservative Likud party and his main rival-turned-partner, Benny Gantz of the centrist Blue and White party.
Mr. Netanyahu and Mr. Gantz have blamed each other for the crisis.
“I think at the current time, we should have united forces to find a way to avert these needless elections,” Mr. Netanyahu said in Parliament early Tuesday as he tried, and failed, to seek a delay in its dissolution.
A new vote has tentatively been scheduled for March 23. But an election date in the late spring or summer, once the coronavirus vaccination campaign is well underway, might have been more advantageous for Mr. Netanyahu.
Barring an unlikely, last-minute political deal, the Parliament will automatically disperse at midnight when the legal deadline for approving a state budget runs out. Mr. Netanyahu, whose party holds the finance portfolio, has refused to present a budget for 2020 or 2021, in violation of his coalition agreement with Mr. Gantz — the ostensible reason for the government breakdown.
But at the heart of the crisis lies a deep, mutual distrust between the two men and a country fundamentally split over the fate of Mr. Netanyahu, whose corruption trial is scheduled to move into an intensive, evidentiary stage in early 2021, requiring his regular presence in court. He has been charged with bribery, fraud and breach of trust. He denies any wrongdoing.
Analysts said that Mr. Netanyahu was gambling on another election in the hope of forming a right-wing, religious government that would grant him some kind of immunity from prosecution.
“It’s not the budget, stupid,” said Reuven Hazan, a professor of political science at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Mr. Netanyahu “needs a government that will pass legislation either to delay his case for the foreseeable future or cancel it altogether,” he added.
But failing to present a budget and forcing the dispersal of Parliament provides him with an escape hatch from the coalition agreement stipulating that Mr. Gantz should take over as prime minister 11 months from now. From the inception of the unity government, few people, including Mr. Gantz, expected Mr. Netanyahu to honor that agreement.
Mr. Gantz’s party, for its part, refused to back any compromise with Mr. Netanyahu over the authority for making key appointments, including for the posts of attorney general and state attorney. A compromise would have violated Blue and White’s flagship policy of upholding the rule of law but would have kept the government on life support.
Mr. Netanyahu, Israel’s longest-serving prime minister, who is renowned for his political savvy, quickly pivoted into campaign mode.
“I’m not afraid of elections. We’re ready for them. We’ll win,” he said. “The Israeli public knows who has delivered millions of vaccines, four peace agreements, who is curbing Iran, who provides security and who is going to rehabilitate the economy.”
Mr. Gantz said his party had entered Mr. Netanyahu’s government, despite paying a high political price, “to serve the best interests of the country, given the needs and scale of the moment. Unfortunately,” he added, “we found no partner on the other end.”
The current government will remain in place in a caretaker capacity until after the election and the formation of a new government.
Both Mr. Netanyahu and Mr. Gantz are taking a considerable political risk by going back to the polls.
The unity government was formed as a last resort after three inconclusive elections ended without any one candidate being able to muster a parliamentary majority. While Mr. Netanyahu and his Likud party were far ahead in the polls a few weeks ago, a new conservative challenger, Gideon Saar, has shaken things up.
Mr. Saar, who lost to Mr. Netanyahu in a Likud leadership race a year ago, recently defected from the party and set up a rival one called New Hope. Drawing support from disenchanted voters from both the right and the political center, Mr. Saar’s move has muddied any clear path back to power for Mr. Netanyahu, according to recent opinion polls, meaning that Israel’s political morass may persist even beyond a new election.
Blue and White had already lost the bulk of its popular support after it broke its campaign promise and entered into government with a prime minister under indictment. Critics say that Mr. Gantz, a former army chief, is a weak and indecisive party leader and that his two-year political career is all but over.
“I think he needs to get up and go,” Professor Hazan, the political science expert, said of Mr. Gantz.
Damning him further, Mr. Netanyahu said that he had actually reached a compromise with Mr. Gantz on Monday on the issue of appointments and authorities, but that rebels within the Blue and White party, including the justice minister, Avi Nissenkorn, had blocked Mr. Gantz from making the deal.
Miki Zohar, a Likud official, said Blue and White was committing “political suicide.”