Exasperated Israelis were coming to grips Thursday with the dreaded reality that they will be heading to the polls for an unprecedented third time in a year.
Many pondered whether there was any way out of the seemingly endless stalemate after parliament dissolved itself once again.
Legislators passed a motion earlier in the day to hold elections on March 2, hours after the deadline to form a coalition government expired. The motion passed with a 94-0 vote in the house.
That now triggers a nearly three-month-long campaign ahead of the vote that most polls predict will not produce dramatically different results than those that led to the current crisis.
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“It's a terrible joke, something is broken in the system," said 40-year-old Edna Naon, who was recently laid off from her high-tech job, in part because of delays in approving government projects her company relied upon. “There is just this helpless feeling. We are simple citizens who have no way of changing the reality. You can feel this stagnation in all walks of life."
Given Israel's divided state, and the deep mistrust between the opposing camps, there is no guarantee that another vote will break the loop of elections and instability that has rocked the country for the past year.
Another campaign, and the national holiday of Election Day, will cost the Israeli economy hundreds of millions of dollars. But perhaps even a steeper price comes in the form of nearly 18 months of caretaker governments that cannot carry out major legislation, make appointments or pass budgets.
“This nightmare, in which we’re heading into elections once again, the third within the space of a single year, is neither a parable nor a dream. It is completely real,” wrote Sima Kadmon in the leading Yediot Ahronot daily. "There aren’t words left that can express the public’s disgust with and mistrust towards its elected representatives.
Reflecting the mood, her newspaper blared a front page headline with a single word: “Embarrassment.”
As in the previous rounds, the two largest parties, Likud and Blue and White, blamed each other for the impasse and tried setting the narrative for what is likely to be a grueling and nasty campaign.
Israel has been mired in political deadlock for months, after two inconclusive elections and failed attempts by both Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Blue and White's leader, former army chief Benny Gantz, to cobble together coalition governments.
The costly election campaigns put government work on indefinite hold and the perceived obstinacy of both sides has frustrated Israelis, who are used to fractious politics but have never before seen a repeat election, let alone a third one.
“The first feeling that comes to mind is despair,” said Yaniv Feldman, 36, as he walked through a shopping center in the Tel Aviv suburb of Ramat Gan. “But look what is happening around the world as well. It is what it is. All you can do it go out and vote.”
The sense of disgust has indeed raised fears that turnout could be lower in March, producing an even more distorted expression of the will of the people.
President Reuven Rivlin urged the country to remain positive. “We must not allow ourselves to sink into despair or grievance, which does no good,” he said. “We must not lose faith in the democratic system or in its ability to create the reality we live in with our own hands.”
During government negotiations, both sides professed eagerness to reach a power-sharing agreement, but could not agree on its composition nor who would lead it. Netanyahu insisted on serving as prime minister, where he is best positioned to fight his recent indictment on a series of corruption charges. Gantz has refused to serve under a prime minister with such serious legal problems and called on Likud to choose a different leader.
Likud has seen a burgeoning insurrection by lawmaker Gideon Saar, who says the party needs a new leader because Netanyahu has been unable to form a government. Primaries are set for later this month, but fewer than a handful of Likud legislators have fallen behind Saar and Netanyahu is expected to be returned to party leadership, despite the political disarray and his legal woes.
Netanyahu faces charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust in three corruption cases in which he is accused of trading legislative or regulatory favors in exchange for lavish gifts or favorable media coverage. He denies wrongdoing and has waged an angry campaign against the media and law enforcement officials he said are bent on ousting him from office.
Netanyahu had hoped for a sweeping victory in elections in April and September that would have delivered a majority in favor of granting him immunity from prosecution. He can can now hope that the next election delivers him a more favorable result. Netanyahu’s trial is on hold until the immunity issue is resolved, a process that is expected to take months.
After the March election, he also could use coalition negotiations as leverage to push potential partners to support his immunity request.
Under Israeli law, a sitting prime minister charged with a crime is not required to step down. But Cabinet ministers under indictment must resign and Netanyahu, who holds four portfolios, including health, agriculture and welfare, notified Israel's Supreme Court on Thursday that he would give up each ministry by the end of the year. The letter to the court, which was responding to a petition by a good governance group, stressed that Netanyahu would continue serving as prime minister.
The petition also asked the court to demand Netanyahu step down as prime minister, which the court declined to do because new elections have been scheduled.
Netanyahu's opponents argue he cannot guide the country through its myriad challenges while fighting his legal battles.
”The suicidal tailspin on the political system this past year originated with one person: Benjamin Netanyahu," wrote columnist Yossi Verter in the liberal Haaretz. “This election campaign, like its two predecessors in April and September, is the result of his ongoing escape from a trial that is likely to end in prison."
Associated Press writer Tia Goldenberg in Tel Aviv, Israel, contributed to this report.