Netanyahu struggles to survive as Israel heads for another electoral stalemate

TEL AVIV – Another choice, another possible dead end.

Early results suggest that Israel’s fourth election in two years will lead to another indecisive result, with neither Benjamin Netanyahu nor his opponents having a clear path to form a government.

With 88 percent of the votes counted as of Wednesday morning, Netanyahu’s Likud party had won around 30 seats in the Israeli parliament and emerged by far the largest party.

But even with the support of the smaller nationalist and religious parties, Netanyahu’s right-wing bloc appeared to fall far short of the 61 seats needed 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 seemed unable to muster the numbers for a majority.

Israel’s electoral commission said final results are not expected until Friday due to delays due to Covid-19 restrictions and that the figures may 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 delivers a speech following the announcement of the first exit poll results in Tel Aviv on Wednesday.Sebastian Scheiner / AP

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“This shows once again that Israelis are split in half when it comes to the main question defining Israeli politics today: Are you for or against the continuation of the prime ministerial post of Benjamin Netanyahu?” said Yohanan Plesner, chairman of the think tank of the Israel Institute of Democracy.

Initial exit polls looked promising for Netanyahu and he claimed victory shortly after the polls closed on Tuesday. “Citizens of Israel, thank you!” he said in a tweet. “You have awarded a great victory to the right and to the Likud under my leadership.”

But as the hours passed and the actual votes were counted, the advantage of the right-wing bloc seemed to be fading.

The results were further mixed, as it appeared that a small Islamist party known as Ra’am had defied expectations and won enough votes to qualify for four or five seats in the Israeli parliament.

Ra’am, led by Dr. Mansour Abbas, a former dentist, draws its support from religiously conservative elements of Israel’s 2 million-member Arab minority.

Unlike the leaders of other Arab parties, Abbas has suggested that he is open to supporting the pro-Netanyahu bloc or the anti-Netanyahu bloc as long as he can bring benefits to his community.

He did not rule out anything inside or outside in an interview with news site Ynet on Wednesday. “Whoever wants to get in touch with us, we will be happy to talk with him and raise our positions and demands,” he said.

Ra’am’s apparent electoral achievements raise the unusual possibility that Netanyahu may seek Islamist support to shore up a right-wing nationalist government.

Once the vote totals are finalized, party leaders will meet with Israeli President Reuven Rivlin and make a recommendation on who the next prime minister should be.

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

If they fail, another leader may have the opportunity to try to form a government. And if no one can get a majority in parliament, the country will head to other elections.

Netanyahu put Israel’s successful launch of the Covid-19 vaccine at the center of his campaign. More than half of Israelis have received at least one dose, one of the highest in the world.

Their campaign slogan, “Back to Life,” was designed 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 see the results.

On the other hand, Netanyahu is currently on trial for corruption. Prosecutors charge him with fraud, bribery and breach of trust in a series of cases involving allegations that he abused his post as prime minister. Netanyahu denies the charges.

The election ended with a disappointing outcome for New Hope, a party made up of former members of Netanyahu’s Likud who split up to challenge their leader. The party, led by former minister Gideon Saar, began the electoral vote with 20 seats, but early results suggest that it has only won six.

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