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Israel heads to unprecedented third election in a year

Joe Dyke and Stephen Weizman
The bill would call a new general election for March 2, the country's third in 12 months (AFP Photo/MENAHEM KAHANA)

Jerusalem (AFP) - After months of deadlocked talks and the indictment of the prime minister, Israel moved Wednesday to its third election in 12 months, a first in the history of the Jewish state.

The elections will likely deepen polarisation and fuel deep dissatisfaction with politicians that have been unable to form a government in a year.

Rightwing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, neck and neck with centrist rival Benny Gantz in April and September polls, will this time go to the people with an extra millstone around his neck -- an ongoing indictment over a series of corruption charges.

The two men had been discussing forming a unity government but the talks broke down.

MPs had until 23.59 to find a candidate capable of gaining a majority in the parliament, or Knesset but the deadline passed, meaning parliament dissolves and the country returns to the polls in March.

MPs were expected to confirm the exact date and confirmed election procedures and financing in the early hours of Thursday.

- Trading blame -

Early polls suggest Netanyahu's Likud party could still be near level with Gantz's Blue and White.

Even before the new election was confirmed, the two men were trading blame and launching their campaigns.

"They forced new elections upon us," Netanyahu said in a video published by his Likud party, referring to Gantz's Blue and White party.

"In order to stop it recurring again there is only one thing to do and that is to win, and to win big time."

"We will be going into a third election cycle today because of Netanyahu's attempt to obtain immunity," Gantz told lawmakers, referring to the premier's legal troubles. "We must stand in opposition to this."

The new elections are deeply unpopular among the electorate, with the Manufacturers Association of Israel estimating the three elections could cost the economy a total of 12 billion shekels ($3.4 billion, 3.1 billion euros).

A poll published by Israel's Channel 13 TV found that 41 percent of people thought Netanyahu was to blame for the impasses, with only 5 percent blaming Gantz.

-'Festival of hate' -

Likud and Blue and White were nearly deadlocked but each fell well short of a majority in September's election, following a similarly inconclusive poll in April.

Both were then given 28-day periods to try to forge a workable coalition but failed, each trying unsuccessfully to convince kingmaker Avigdor Lieberman to join their blocs.

A new election will likely again be seen as a referendum on the leadership of Netanyahu, a deeply divisive figure in Israel.

In power since 2009, to his supporters say Israel's longest-serving premier has transformed the country into a tech and innovation powerhouse, while keeping it safe in a tumultuous Middle East.

But critics accuse the rightwinger of ruling through sowing discord and hatred, as well as corruption and monopolising power.

Netanyahu was indicted last month for bribery, breach of trust and fraud relating to three separate corruption cases.

He denies the allegations and accuses the media, police and prosecution of a witch-hunt.

No date has yet been set for the beginning of the proceedings and, under Israeli law, Netanyahu can remain in office despite the indictment.

Gantz, a former armed forces chief, has campaigned on clean politics and called on Netanyahu to step down after the indictment.

He also encouraged defections among Netanyahu's allies, but they largely stood by the 70-year-old leader.

Despite the indictment, early polls suggest a third round of elections could again be neck and neck.

Fighting for his career and possibly even his freedom, critics expect Netanyahu to use dirty tricks in the coming months.

"These elections are going to be a festival of hate, violence and filth," Yair Lapid, a senior Blue and White politician, said late Wednesday.

- Internal challenge -

Before the elections Netanyahu has an internal challenge to navigate, with his Likud party announcing on Wednesday it plans to have leadership primaries on December 26.

His only confirmed rival, Gideon Saar, said it was time for a change to "end the ongoing political crisis".

Whether he will be able to gain the support of the majority of the party, many of whom are fiercely loyal to Netanyahu, remains doubtful.

With his eye on the campaign trail, Netanyahu has in recent days pushed his plan to annex a strategic part of the occupied West Bank, as well as to sign a defence treaty with the United States.

He is a close ally of US President Donald Trump, who has taken a number of controversial steps in support of Netanyahu's rightwing agenda.