With his conservative Likud party claiming it had locked down 60 seats, just one shy of a majority, he sought out new coalition partners and potential defectors from opposition parties. He even approached Labor, the centre-left stalwart, which rebuffed his advance.
At the same time, his party advanced a fallback bill to dissolve Parliament and go to new elections.
That bill passed shortly after midnight on Thursday, Israel time, with Parliament voting to dissolve itself just a month after it was sworn in, with 74 votes in favour and 45 against. One member was absent.
Israelis will now return to the ballot box in elections tentatively set for September 17, the first time in the country’s history that it has been forced to hold a new national election because of the failure to form a government after the previous one.
Immediately after the parliamentary vote, Netanyahu angrily blamed Avigdor Lieberman, the leader of the ultranationalist party Yisrael Beiteinu, for thwarting a right-wing coalition.
Lieberman, whose five seats made him a kingmaker, said he supported Netanyahu but had refused to compromise with religious parties on a law that would end the wholesale exemption of ultra-Orthodox men from conscription.
Netanyahu said that position was a ruse.
«Lieberman never intended to reach an agreement,» Netanyahu said. «He clearly wanted to shoot down this government, and he is doing so because he reckons he will receive a few more votes.»
«He won’t succeed,» Netanyahu added, before hurling the ultimate insult: «Avigdor Lieberman is now part of the left.»
Lieberman, for his part, accused Netanyahu of «capitulating to the ultra-Orthodox.» Repeating a mantra of recent days, he added, «We are natural partners for a right-wing government, but not for a government based on Jewish law.»
Netanyahu’s legal troubles — he is facing charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust in three corruption cases — also hampered his chances of forming an alternative government and weakened his leverage in coalition negotiations.
The main opposition party, the centrist Blue and White, which won 35 seats in April, the same number as Likud, had refused to be part of a government with a prime minister facing indictment.
Netanyahu’s failure to form a government also scuppered any immediate plans to advance legislation giving him immunity from prosecution while in office. The Attorney-General has set a hearing for Netanyahu in early October, when there may still not be a new government, after which the Attorney-General can make a final decision on filing charges.
The reopened political season is also likely to overshadow and perhaps delay the Trump administration’s peace efforts. The White House had scheduled an economic development conference for the Palestinian territories next month in Bahrain, described as the first step in the economic portion of a long-delayed peace plan.
Jared Kushner and Jason Greenblatt, leaders of US President Donald Trump’s Middle East peace team, landed in Israel for meetings on Thursday, their arrival overshadowed by the political chaos.
With Israel lacking an elected government at least until the northern fall, by which point Trump is likely to be consumed by his own re-election campaign, the prospects for advancing a peace plan already rejected out of hand by the Palestinians seemed to dim even further.
Predicting that the political component of the peace plan, widely dubbed «the deal of the century,» would be pushed off indefinitely, Saeb Erekat, the veteran Palestinian chief negotiator and PLO secretary-general, said on Thursday, «Now it is the deal of the next century.»
It is unclear whether anyone in Israel really wanted a new election, especially so soon, least of all Netanyahu.
But unable to form a coalition by the deadline, Netanyahu sought to head off a potentially worse result: President Reuven Rivlin, whom he considers a foe, could have offered someone else the chance to form a government. To pre-empt that possibility, Parliament had to dissolve itself before Rivlin could act.
Lieberman, an unpredictable tough-talker with a penchant for political drama and a long history of rivalry with Netanyahu, brought his party into the last Netanyahu government in 2016, stabilising an administration that previously had a parliamentary majority of only one.
He insisted on being defence minister, a post from which he resigned in November, citing what he described as the government’s soft policy toward Gaza and calling for early elections.
The policy he objected to — allowing the transfer of millions of dollars of cash from Qatar to Hamas, the militant group that controls Gaza — has not changed.
Lieberman has insisted that a proposed new law that would set modest quotas for enlisting some ultra-Orthodox men must pass without alteration. The religious parties, which have 16 parliamentary seats, insist it must be softened. Israel’s Supreme Court has set a deadline of late July to replace the law.
The issue of unequal conscription has long roiled Israeli society and politics. Most Jewish 18-year-olds are drafted for more than two years. But Lieberman has said that the law is just a «symptom» of a broader battle over the character of the country.
«I am for the state of Israel,» he wrote in a Facebook poston Tuesday. «I am for a Jewish state, but I am against a state based on Jewish religious law.»
The New York Times