The Israeli parliament has started voting to dissolve itself and pave the way for an unprecedented third election within a year.
The preliminary vote passed without objections and, barring a nearly unfathomable about-face, three more measures are expected to pass and call the new election for March 2.
If the bill is not passed by a midnight deadline, new elections will automatically be set for March 10.
The move prolongs a political stalemate that has paralysed the government and undermined many citizens’ faith in the democratic process.
Prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his chief challenger Benny Gantz have for weeks insisted they want to avoid another costly election campaign that is expected to produce similar results, but neither has been willing to compromise on their core demands for a power-sharing agreement.
Mr Netanyahu’s recent indictment on corruption charges has added a murky legal aspect to the saga.
After September elections, both men failed to form a governing coalition on their own, and in a final three-week window, they could not join forces to avoid another vote.
Both sides said they were working until the last minute to find a way out of the deadlock, but a breakthrough seems highly unlikely.
Given Israel’s divided state, and the deep mistrust between the opposing camps, there is no guarantee that another vote will break the loop of elections and instability that has rocked the country for the past year.
Another campaign, and the national holiday of Election Day, will cost the Israeli economy billions.
But there will be an even steeper price caused by nearly 18 months of caretaker governments that cannot carry out major legislation, make appointments or pass budgets, said Yohanan Plesner, president of the non-partisan Israel Democracy Institute.
“The entire decision-making apparatus has been stalled and that has ample implications across the board,” he said.
“Israelis are frustrated as a result of the fact that there is no decisive outcome. But there is also an understanding that we are in a very unique and unprecedented situation where a prime minister who is very popular within his own constituency is also being indicted with very severe crimes.”
The most straightforward way out of the stalemate would be for Mr Gantz’s centrist Blue and White party to form a unity government with Mr Netanyahu’s Likud. Together, they control a solid majority in the 120-seat Knesset.
But Mr Gantz’s party refuses to sit with Mr Netanyahu, who was indicted last month on charges of accepting bribes, fraud and breach of trust.
Israel’s longest serving leader, is desperately clinging to power to wage his legal battle from the favourable perch of prime minister. He has insisted on going first in any alternating leadership arrangement and has refused to drop his alliance with other nationalist and ultra-Orthodox Jewish parties.
Mr Gantz has said he would make a deal with a different leader of Likud, but Mr Netanyahu has fended off a burgeoning insurrection inside his party, with just one major figure, Gideon Saar, daring to openly challenge him.
“If I am elected head of Likud, I will lead it to victory,” Mr Saar announced on Tuesday, citing polls that he was more likely to be able to build a stable coalition.
“It is very clear, on the other hand, that if we keep the current course we will not get anywhere better than we have in the last two elections.”
With all the other senior Likud officials lining up behind him, Mr Netanyahu is expected to beat Mr Saar in any primary vote.