Israel edges towards early election amid Netanyahu-Gantz feud


FILE PHOTO: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu issues a statement at the Israeli Defense Ministry in Tel Aviv, Israel with the Alternate PM and Defence Minister Benny Gantz July 27 2020, following the high tensions with the Lebanese militant group of Hezbollah at the Israeli-Lebanon border. Tal Shahar/Pool via REUTERS

JERUSALEM (Reuters) - 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.

"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.

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.

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.

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 organising."

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.

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 defence 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.

(Editing by Gareth Jones)

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