JERUSALEM (AP) — Israel’s two main political parties were deadlocked Wednesday after an unprecedented repeat election, with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu facing an uphill battle to hold on to his job.
The election’s seeming political kingmaker, Avigdor Lieberman, said he’ll insist upon a secular unity government between Netanyahu’s Likud and Benny Gantz’s Blue and White parties, who are running neck-and-neck to become the country’s largest party.
Without Lieberman’s endorsement, though, neither party appears able to secure a parliamentary majority with their prospective ideological allies.
With results still pouring in, Lieberman insisted the overall picture was unlikely to change. He also demanded a secular “liberal” government shorn of the religious and ultra-Orthodox allies the prime minister has long relied upon.
“The conclusion is clear, everything we said throughout the campaign is coming true,” he said outside his home in the West Bank settlement of Nokdim. “There is one and only option: a national unity government that is broad and liberal and we will not join any other option.”
That could spell serious trouble for the continuation of Netanyahu’s lengthy rule.
Gantz, a former military chief, has ruled out sitting with a Netanyahu-led Likud at a time when the prime minister is expected to be indicted on corruption charges in the coming weeks. It raised the specter of an alternate Likud candidate rising to challenge Netanyahu, though most of its senior officials have thus far pledged to stand solidly behind their leader.
Netanyahu, the longest serving leader is Israeli history, had desperately sought an outright majority with his hard-line and ultra-Orthodox allies in hopes of passing legislation to give him immunity from his expected indictment.
Israel’s attorney general has recommended charging Netanyahu with bribery, fraud and breach of trust in three scandals, pending a long-awaited hearing scheduled in the coming weeks. A formal indictment would increase the pressure on Netanyahu to step aside if he does not have immunity.
Near-final results released Wednesday by the Central Election Commission had Blue and White with 32 seats out of the 120 in parliament and edging past Likud, who had 31. The tally is based on a count of 63% of eligible voters. Overall turnout was 69.4%.
According to the partial results, Likud with its natural allies of religious and ultra-nationalist parties mustered just 55 seats — or six short of the needed majority.
Gantz’s Blue and White and its center-left allies garnered 56 seats, placing Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu and its nine seats in the middle as the deciding factor.
The only precedent for a unity government in Israel came after the 1984 election and saw a rotating premiership between the heads of the two largest parties.
The joint list of Arab parties, who have never sat in an Israeli government, also finished strong, with results indicating they had earned 13 seats to become the third-largest party in parliament. Should a unity government be formed, its leader Ayman Odeh, would become the country’s next opposition leader, an official state position that would grant him an audience with visiting dignitaries, a state-funded bodyguard, monthly consultations with the prime minister and a platform to rebut his speeches in parliament.
Odeh mocked Netanyahu’s drop in support by stating that “incitement has a price,” and some of his constituents expressed cautious optimism that their rise would bring welcome change and a new premier.
“Gantz may be better because he is not leftist, but he is not an extremist,” said Samer Izz, a shop owner in Haifa and Arab Israeli. “We are hoping that this new government can be better.”
Palestinians, who barely figured in the campaign, had a far more skeptical outlook.
“We do not expect to see major policy changes,” said Hanan Ashrawi, a top Palestinian official. “We would be extremely naive if we think that these elections would produce a peace camp or would produce a counterpart or a partner for a genuine resolution of the conflict.”
Addressing his supporters early Wednesday, Netanyahu refused to concede defeat and vowed to form a new government that excludes Arab parties, continuing his campaign rhetoric of questioning the loyalty of the country’s Arab minority — a strategy that drew accusations of racism.
“There neither will be nor can there be a government that relies on anti-Zionist Arab parties. Parties that reject the very existence of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state. Parties that vaunt and praise bloodthirsty terrorists who murder our soldiers, citizens and children,” he said.
In his first comments Wednesday morning outside his home, Gantz said he had already begun working toward forming a “unity government” but urged patience until the final results were announced, likely on Thursday.
Focus will then shift toward Israel’s president, Reuven Rivlin, who is tasked with selecting the candidate he believes has the best chance of forming a stable coalition. Rivlin is to consult with all parties in the coming days before making his decision. Lieberman’s recommendation will carry a lot of weight regarding who will be tapped as the prime minister designate.
The candidate would then have up to six weeks to form a coalition. If that fails, Rivlin could give another candidate for prime minister 28 days to form a coalition. And if that doesn’t work, new elections would be triggered yet again. Rivlin has said he will do everything possible to avoid such a scenario and Lieberman has ruled it out as well.
Lieberman’s primary stated goal is to push out what he sees as the excessive power of the ultra-Orthodox Jewish parties and have wide a coalition that can effectively tackle Israel’s most pressing security and economic challenges. But Netanyahu accused his former ally of plotting to oust him from office out of personal spite.
Behind the two is decades of a roller-coaster relationship. Lieberman, once Netanyahu’s chief of staff, has held a series of senior Cabinet posts and was often a staunch partner. But he’s also been a rival, critic and thorn in Netanyahu’s side.
The Moldovan-born Lieberman started as a top Netanyahu aide in the 1990s before embarking on a political career of his own as a nationalist hard-liner and champion of immigrants from the former Soviet Union like himself.
Lieberman, like Netanyahu, has been accused of inciting against Arabs for branding their lawmakers as enemies of the state and advocating for population swaps that would place many Arab citizens outside Israel’s borders. But he’s also shown signs of pragmatism, such as suggesting he’d be willing to dismantle his own West Bank settlement if Israel’s final borders were redrawn.
But he resigned last year as defense minister because Netanyahu kept blocking his plans to strike hard against Gaza militants.
Lieberman passed up the chance to return to the post following April’s election, refused to join Netanyahu’s emerging coalition and forcing the do-over vote. Assuming he sticks to his guns this time as well, Netanyahu could be done as Israel’s prime minister.
Lieberman is now “the linchpin,” wrote Nahum Barnea, a prominent columnist in the Yediot Ahronot daily.
“I don’t think that anyone is prepared to risk a third election, not even for Netanyahu,” Barnea added. “Maybe the time has come to say goodbye.”