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Israelis gird for unprecedented third election in a year

Blue and White party leader Benny Gantz, center, stands during a Knesset session in Jerusalem, on Dec. 11, 2019. (AP Photo/Oded Balilty)

JERUSALEM (AP) -- Israelis grappled Thursday with the confounding reality of unprecedented third national elections in less than a year, after Parliament was dissolved and the date for the next vote was set -- further extending months of political paralysis that has gripped the country.

Legislators passed a motion earlier 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 logjam.

"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.

As in each previous round, the 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 caustic campaign.

"The politicians were unable to decide and so it goes back to the people. And it's a shame. There weren't big differences," Foreign Minister Israel Katz, a Likud lawmaker, told Israeli Army Radio.

Israel has been mired in political deadlock for months, after two inconclusive elections and failed attempts by both Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his chief rival, former army chief Benny Gantz, to cobble together coalition governments.

The costly election campaigns, government work on indefinite hold and the perceived obstinacy of both sides has frustrated Israelis, who are used to fractious politics but have never seen repeat elections.

"It's very disappointing. Terrible, in my opinion. It's also a waste of resources and energy. The public is tired of it and I think there's anger at all sides that can't reach any kind of agreement," said Malka Miller, walking along Tel Aviv's beach-side boardwalk.

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. Netanyahu denies wrongdoing.

Netanyahu had hoped for a sweeping victory in April's elections, winning him a majority that would grant 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 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 New 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.

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," Verter wrote.

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