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Netanyahu (C) arrives in parliament today. Photo: Alex Kolomiensky/Pool/AFP via Getty

After six months of a dysfunctional power-sharing government, Israel is headed for its fourth elections in less than two years, most likely at the end of March.

Driving the news: The Knesset voted 61-54 today to approve the preliminary reading of a bill to dissolve the parliament and call new elections. Benny Gantz's Blue and White party supported the bill while Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's Likud and the rest of the coalition voted against.

  • This is a first step towards early elections, but the bill needs to pass three more votes. That leaves two or three weeks to find a solution to the coalition crisis, but the chances of that happening are very low.

The big picture: The government's collapse was precipitated by Netanyahu's refusal to pass a 2021 budget, which would have locked in the rotation agreement under which Gantz was to become prime minister next November.

  • Gantz accused Netanyahu last night of being a "serial promise-breaker" who had "led on the Israeli people."
  • Netanyahu thinks new elections will help him deal with his corruption trial, which is due to resume in February.
  • According to polls, most Israelis consider Netanyahu responsible for the early elections. 

The state of play: Despite his weakening poll numbers, Netanyahu starts the election campaign with no significant opponent and with the opposition fractured.

  • The latest polls show Netanyahu’s right-wing bloc leading with at least 65 seats — a solid majority which could allow Netanyahu to take steps to further postpone his trial or cancel it altogether through legislation.

What to watch: Netanyahu’s main political rival, Naftali Bennett, comes from the right.

  • Polls project Bennet's party to finish second to Likud with around 22 seats, pulling in votes from disappointed Blue and White and Likud supporters who approve of Bennett’s policies on countering COVID-19 and fixing the economy.
  • Netanyahu will focus on winning back some of those voters and shrinking Bennett's vote share.
  • The center-left is divided and opposition leader Yair Lapid isn’t perceived as a credible alternative to Netanyahu. The biggest challenge for the opposition will be trying to find a way to run together under one list in order to mobilize their disillusioned voters.

The election campaign is likely to take place during a third wave of COVID-19 and possibly even a third lockdown. That could have huge consequences for turn-out and on voters who aren't committed to one party.

Go deeper

Jan 21, 2021 - World

Netanyahu and Israel reluctantly adjust to a post-Trump Washington

Netanyahu (R) and Biden in 2010. Photo: Avi Ohayon/GPO via Getty

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his close aides are very nervous about the transition to a new U.S. administration after a four-year honeymoon with Donald Trump. One Israeli official told me it felt like going through detox.

What he's saying: Netanyahu congratulated Biden minutes after he was sworn in, saying in a statement that he looked forward to working together to "continue expanding peace between Israel and the Arab world and to confront common challenges, chief among them the threat posed by Iran."

Jan 21, 2021 - World

World leaders react to "new dawn in America" under Biden administration

President Biden reacts delivers his inaugural address on the West Front of the U.S. Capitol on Wednesday. Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images

World leaders have pledged to work with President Biden on issues including the COVID-19 pandemic and climate change, with many praising his move to begin the formal process for the U.S. to rejoin the Paris Climate Agreement.

The big picture: Several leaders noted the swift shift from former President Trump's "America First" policy to Biden's action to re-engage with the world and rebuild alliances.

24 mins ago - Health

Moderna says vaccine appears to protect against new COVID-19 variants

Photo: Justin Tallis/AFP via Getty Images

Moderna's COVID-19 vaccine is effective against new variants of the virus that first appeared in the U.K. and in South Africa, the company announced on Monday.

Yes, but: The vaccine was as effective against the strain from U.K., but saw a six-fold reduction in antibodies against the South Africa variant. Even still, the neutralizing antibodies generated by the vaccine "remain above levels that are expected to be protective," according to the company.