December 12, 2019 / 1:34 AM / a month ago

As another election looms, Israel's president asks public not to despair

JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Israel’s president on Thursday urged Israelis not to lose faith in their democratic system after persistent political deadlock threw the country into a third election in less than a year.

FILE PHOTO: Israeli President Reuven Rivlin talks during a press conference at the Presidential Palace in Nicosia, Cyprus February 12, 2019. REUTERS/Yiannis Kourtoglou

The March 2 ballot, agreed by parliament when it voted overnight to dissolve, will be held in the shadow of a corruption indictment last month against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has denied any wrongdoing.

Neither the right-wing Likud party leader nor his main political rival, former armed forces chief Benny Gantz of the centrist Blue and White party, won enough support in elections in April and September for a ruling majority in the legislature.

Negotiations between the two parties on a “national unity” coalition deteriorated into a blame game as to who would bear responsibility for a third election that both Netanyahu and Gantz insisted neither they nor the country wanted.

President Reuven Rivlin, whose proposal of a “rotating” premiership between the two men faltered over who would serve first and for how long, issued a statement appealing to Israelis not to “sink into despair” in the face of the political logjam.

“We must not lose faith in the democratic system or in its ability to create the reality we live in with our own hands,” said Rivlin, a former Likud legislator whose current post is largely ceremonial.

Netanyahu also faces challenges from within his own party.

Likud announced on Thursday it would hold a leadership vote on Dec. 26, the winner of which would head the party’s ticket in the March 2 election, a party official said.

However, only one Likud lawmaker, Gideon Saar, has said he would consider running for the top slot. He has not won much support, with most lawmakers indicating they would stick with Netanyahu.

The disarray carries a heavy economic price: it will be well into 2020 before a new budget is passed.

“The new elections will paralyze the government for another six months in which it will have to operate under an interim budget and hinder economic growth,” said Modi Shafrir, chief strategist in Mizrahi Tefahot Bank’s finance division.

Diana Perkins, a Tel Aviv florist, voiced frustration at another do-over ballot, with recent opinion polls predicting no significant change in voting results from three months ago.

“I don’t know who has the answer,” she said. “I wish I had a magic ball to say, like, ‘This going to solve all the issues.’”

As prime minister, Netanyahu, 70, is under no legal obligation to resign as a result of the indictment and he can seek parliamentary immunity from proceedings he has condemned as a “coup” attempt by government lawyers.

For some commentators the bottom line is that Netanyahu, in office for the past decade, has managed to cling to power as Israel’s longest-serving leader despite setbacks at the polls and that he will get another chance at survival at the ballot box.

Additional reporting by Dan Williams and Steven Scheer; Editing by Mark Heinrich

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