Israel headed for yet another election deadlock as Netanyahu fights for survival

TEL AVIV – Another choice, another possible dead end.

Initial results suggest that Israel’s fourth election in two years will lead to yet another indecisive outcome that will give neither Benjamin Netanyahu nor his opponents a clear path to government formation.

With 88 percent of the vote on Wednesday morning, the Likud party of Netanyahu had won around 30 seats in the Israeli parliament and emerged as by far the largest single party.

But even with the support of smaller nationalist and religious parties, Netanyahu’s right-wing bloc appeared to be just below the 61 seats required to form a majority in Israel’s 120-seat parliament.

Netanyahu’s opponents – a coalition of left, right and center parties determined to end his 15 years in power – also appeared unable to raise the numbers for a majority.

The Israel Election Commission said final results would not be expected until Friday due to delays due to Covid restrictions, and the numbers could change as more ballots are counted. However, tired Israeli voters were already beginning to discuss the prospect of a fifth election.

Yesh Atid party leader Yair Lapid gives a speech after the first results of the Exit poll were announced in Tel Aviv on Wednesday.Sebastian Scheiner / AP

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“This proves once again that Israelis are divided down to the middle on the main question that defines Israeli politics today: Are you for or against continuing Benjamin Netanyahu’s term in office?” said Yohanan Plesner, president of the Israeli Democracy Institute think tank.

Initial polls on the exit looked promising for Netanyahu and he took the win shortly after polls closed at 10 p.m. on Tuesday. “Citizens of Israel – thank you!” Netanyahu said in a tweet. “You gave the right wing and Likud a great victory under my leadership.”

But as the hours passed and the actual ballots were counted, the leadership of the right block seemed to slip away.

The results were further mixed up when it was found that a small Islamist party called Ra’am had defied expectations and won enough votes to qualify for four to five seats in the Israeli parliament.

Ra’am, led by former dentist Mansour Abbas, relies on religiously conservative elements of Israel’s 2 million Arab minority.

Unlike the leaders of other Arab parties, Abbas has proposed supporting either the pro-Netanyahu bloc or the anti-Netanyahu bloc as long as it can benefit his community.

In an interview with the Ynet news site on Wednesday, he didn’t rule anything out. “Whoever wants to get in touch with us, we will be happy to talk to them and raise our positions and demands,” he said.

Ra’am’s apparent election wins raise the unusual possibility that Netanyahu could seek Islamist support to prop up a right-wing nationalist government.

Once the total number of votes is determined, the party leaders will meet with Israeli President Reuven Rivlin and make a recommendation on who should be the next prime minister.

The president, whose role is largely ceremonial, will then appoint either Netanyahu or another party leader to form a majority government. This leader has six weeks to negotiate with other parties to form a coalition.

If they fail, another leader can be given the opportunity to form a government. And if no one is able to get a majority in parliament, the country will go to another election.

Netanyahu put Israel’s successful launch of Covid vaccines at the center of his campaign. More than half of Israelis have received at least one dose – one of the highest numbers in the world.

His campaign slogan “Back to Life” was intended to reflect how vaccines have allowed Israel to return to a semblance of normal life. When the polls closed on Tuesday, Israelis gathered in recently reopened bars and cafes to watch the results.

Regardless, Netanyahu is currently on trial for corruption. Prosecutors accused him of abusing him for fraud, bribery and breach of trust in a number of cases related to allegations that he abused his position as prime minister. Netanyahu denies the charges.

The election ended in disappointing results for New Hope, a party made up of former Netanyahu Likud members who broke up to challenge their leader. The party, led by former minister Gideon Saar, started the election with 20 seats, but initial results suggest it has only won six.

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