Israel Heads to Third Election, Extending Political Deadlock

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JERUSALEM — Having failed to form a government after two elections, Israel barreled toward a record third on Wednesday, extending the political deadlock that has paralyzed the country for nearly a year and assuring at least three more months of bitter, divisive campaigning and government dysfunction.

And with the country hopelessly divided over the fate of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has been indicted on three counts of corruption, there is little indication that the third election will be any more decisive than the first two.

Israel’s inability to break the logjam has raised questions about the political system its citizens often boast is the only democracy in the Middle East. A democracy often compared to that of Britain or the United States is now evoking comparisons to the less stable governments of Greece and Italy.

“What used to be a celebration of democracy has become a moment of shame for this building,” Yair Lapid, a former finance minister and political rival of the prime minister, said on the floor of Parliament Wednesday night.

The Parliament had until midnight Wednesday to form a majority government. But the hour passed with the two leading candidates for prime minister, Mr. Netanyahu and the former army chief Benny Gantz, unable to negotiate a power-sharing agreement.

Until a new government is created, Mr. Netanyahu remains prime minister of a caretaker government.

By clinging to office, analysts say, Mr. Netanyahu would at least leave himself in better position to negotiate a plea bargain with state prosecutors, and could perhaps avoid trial altogether in exchange for retiring from public life.

In the next election, expected to be in March, he will have to campaign as a defendant in three criminal cases: He was indicted on Nov. 21 on bribery and other corruption charges, accused of trading official favors worth hundreds of millions of dollars to Israeli media moguls for lavish gifts and extravagantly positive press.

It is unclear whether the indictment itself will hurt his chances, though, since the outlines of the cases against him have been known for months.

Israeli opinion polls show that another contest between Mr. Netanyahu and Mr. Gantz would result in the same stalemate: Mr. Gantz’s Blue and White party nearly always comes out slightly ahead, but falls short of enough partners to form a majority coalition.

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