Middle East

Israel faces likely third election amid Bibi-Gantz standoff

JERUSALEM (AP) — Israel is no closer to a breakthrough out of its political paralysis and with the clock running out late Wednesday on Benny Gantz’s window to build a coalition government, the prospect of an unprecedented third election in less than a year appears increasingly likely.

Gantz, a former military chief, has a midnight deadline to present a potential coalition government. If he fails, as expected, the country enters the final 21-day period for a candidate to present a majority before new elections are called.

Neither Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu nor his chief challenger Gantz has the required majority to build a coalition government with like-minded allies. Kingmaker Avigdor Lieberman has refused to give either the nudge for the required majority in Israel’s 120-seat parliament and has urged them to join in a unity government as a way out of the stalemate.

But Gantz and Netanyahu have refused to bend on their core conditions for such an arrangement.

Gantz’s Blue and White party refuses to sit under Netanyahu, who is expected to be indicted soon on corruptions charges. Netanyahu’s Likud has refused to drop its alliance with other nationalist and ultra-Orthodox Jewish parties.

A dizzying array of mediations and creative political machinations failed to break new ground and a Netanyahu-Gantz meeting late Tuesday night produced no headway, resulting in just more mudslinging.

Netanyahu has lambasted Gantz and his fellow former military chiefs in Blue and White for dangling the prospect of a minority government that depended on the outside support of Arab lawmakers, drawing accusations against him of racism and incitement. Such a scenario could end Netanyahu’s decade-long grip on power.

But with the hard-line Lieberman’s long-time animosity toward the Arab lawmakers and his insistence on a unity government that pushes out ultra-Orthodox parties, that doesn’t appear to be a real option.

Lieberman has been holding his cards close for weeks and is expected to speak later Wednesday on where he stands.

“The truth must be said: Netanyahu is rejecting unity and will do anything to deteriorate us to a third election within a year,” Gantz wrote on Facebook. “I am ready to make compromises for the benefit of the citizens of Israel but not to cave on our core principles.”

Barring a last-minute development, it looks like Gantz will be forced to inform Israel’s president that he has no government to present — just as Netanyahu did before him — setting off the final 21-day period before new elections are called. The past two have been inconclusive and polls indicate the result of a third will not differ significantly.

Looming above the entire process is the long-expected announcement on Netanyahu’s corruption indictment that could remove him from the equation and potentially provide a long-sought way out of the impasse.

Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit has recommended that Netanyahu be indicted on fraud, breach of trust and bribery charges in three separate cases. His final ruling has long been anticipated and could come down in the coming week. Though Netanyahu will not be compelled by law to step down immediately, it will certainly harden the opposition’s stance.

Rising regional tensions could also force the sides into compromise.

Israel carried out a wide-scale offensive against Iranian targets in Syria early on Wednesday in response to rocket attacks against it. Eleven people were reported killed, including seven non-Syrians who were most likely Iranian.

Israeli security officials expect Iran to respond, which could set off a direct confrontation, a week after the most intense fighting in Gaza in years. Against such a backdrop, the prospect of another dreaded election would weigh heavily on an already weary public.

President Reuven Rivlin, among many others, has pleaded with the sides to find some sort of compromise to avoid another costly and divisive election campaign.

Reporting by Aron Heller

Image: Blue and White Party leader Benny Gantz, right, reaches out to shake hands with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at an official memorial for former Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and his wife Leah, commemorating 24 years since the assassination of Rabin, at Mt. Herzl in Jerusalem, on Sunday, Nov. 10 (Heidi Levine/Pool via AP)

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