Prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s shortlived “corona coalition” has collapsed, plunging Israel into a fourth election in less than two years.

Mr Netanyahu forced the government’s collapse, refusing to buckle to his partners’ demands that a binding budget be passed, choosing instead to face unhappy voters just as his trial for corruption commences in February.

The high-stakes gamble will make this election the most important in the five-time premier’s three-decade career, and comes amid complete disarray both among the opposition and within Mr Netanyahu’s own rightwing block of parties.

Passing a budget would have triggered a clause in the coalition’s agreement that could have allowed Benny Gantz, the so-called alternate prime minister, an opportunity to serve as prime minister, while Mr Netanyahu would have taken over another portfolio.

The deadline to pass that budget passed at midnight, amid chaotic scenes in the 120-seat Knesset, triggering the automatic dissolution of the seven-month-old government. Elections will now be held in early March.

Three back-to-back polls in 2019 produced a stalemate between Mr Netanyahu’s Likud-led rightwing bloc and a new, untested alliance between Mr Gantz, a retired military chief, and a group of centre-left parties.

That alliance, the Blue and White Party, has fallen apart, giving Mr Netanyahu the opportunity to win back crucial voters. But he also faces two challengers from the right itself — both spurned allies running on a promise of cleaner governance and a more cohesive response to the coronavirus.

“Putting aside all the political ‘noise’, the reason we’re heading to an election is because Netanyahu refused to pass a budget so he can remain prime minister for the duration of the trial,” said Yohanan Plesner, a former member of parliament and the director of the Israel Democracy Institute. “The ‘blame game’ between the two sides has begun as each tries to frame the other as dragging the country to yet another election.”

The dissolution of the government gives Mr Netanyahu another three months to serve as interim prime minister, and possibly a few weeks during any post-election coalition-building process, further extending his run as Israel’s longest serving premier.

“I didn’t want elections,” he said in a televised address. “Likud didn’t want elections. We voted again and again against elections.”

Israel has operated without a budget for two years, forcing the resignations of several senior finance ministry officials, and giving Mr Netanyahu a free hand in coronavirus-related government aid.

He has also championed one of the world’s most ambitious coronavirus vaccination programmes, aiming to have half the country’s adult population inoculated by the time elections are held.

The longtime political survivor enters the elections with a clear advantage — Mr Gantz seems a spent force, the left has entirely collapsed and a Joint List of Arab Parties, which commands 15 seats, is also consumed by infighting.

His challengers instead come from the right itself, with contenders to his throne drawing away votes from Likud by attacking the prime minister’s personal probity ahead of the trial, and by promising a more effective response to the coronavirus.

Support for Naftali Bennett, a pro-settlement rightwinger, has surged to potentially as many as 20 seats in recent polls, and Gideon Sa’ar, who left Likud to start a new party, is polling at more than 10 seats. Both have vowed to keep Mr Netanyahu out of the prime minister’s office.

“We enter this election with a clear advantage in polls for the political right,” said Mr Plesner. “But there is also the growing possibility of coalition that refuses to co-operate with Netanyahu.”