Netanyahu and Rivals in Fourth Election Impasse as Votes Counted

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Israel’s fourth election in two years might not resolve the country’s damaging political impasse, with neither Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu nor his opponents having a secure path to form a coalition government, exit polls and early results show.

If the numbers are accurate, Netanyahu and rivals will spend the coming days exploring possible alliances in an effort to piece together a government. If those efforts fail, Israel could face a fifth election.

Tuesday’s vote was a referendum on the prime minister’s leadership, which has been tested by the graft charges against him and a coronavirus outbreak that’s been curbed but not quelled by the world’s most aggressive vaccination drive.

The Israeli leader and his declared allies captured no more than 53 of parliament’s 120 seats, according to exit polls. Only about 20% of votes had been counted by 3:30 a.m. local time.

Opposition parties were headed for 60 seats together, the polls said, but aren’t a unified bloc. They include Jewish and Arab parties that most likely wouldn’t agree to sit together, and if one were to bow out, the remainder would be short of a majority in the Knesset.

Netanyahu and Rivals in Fourth Election Impasse as Votes Counted

Speaking before cheering supporters of his Likud party, Netanyahu repeatedly exhorted potential partners to join him in government. “We must not drag Israel to new elections, to a fifth election,” he said. “We must build a stable government now.”

Those remarks appeared aimed at former right-wing allies who broke with him to form movements of their own and now are aligned with the opposition.

He said he’s already spoken to Naftali Bennett, a former partner and leader of the predominantly religious-nationalist Yamina party whose backing he would need to form a government.

The exit polls showed it winning seven seats but Bennett hasn’t declared whether he’d sit in a Netanyahu-led coalition to avoid a fifth election. He’s served in previous Netanyahu governments and the two men share similar views on crucial issues, including the conflict with the Palestinians and Iran. Another Likud defector, Gideon Sa’ar of the New Hope party, repeated after the election that he wouldn’t sit with the prime minister.

Because Israel’s political system is heavily splintered -- a dozen parties appear poised to enter parliament -- even a seat or two can tilt the scales.

Turnout, at 67.2%, declined sharply from the last election as voting fatigue set in, and was the lowest since 2013. Final results will be published on Thursday or Friday, with the count delayed by special procedures to tally the votes of coronavirus patients and people in quarantine.

Israel has been engulfed by political turmoil as regional and global turbulence mounts. Tensions with Iran and its proxies have flared repeatedly, and while the Israeli economy has weathered the coronavirus better than many others, risks are piling up.

Joblessness, including furloughs, is towering at 18%. The national budget hasn’t been updated since March 2019. And the government is watching warily as U.S. President Joe Biden works to rejoin the Iran nuclear accord and reset relations with the Palestinians that had foundered during Donald Trump’s era.

For Netanyahu -- Israel’s longest-serving leader with a combined 15 years at the helm -- there’s more than political survival at stake as his influence-peddling trial unfolds. A sixth term offers his only hope of winning a reprieve by passing legislation granting a sitting leader immunity from prosecution.

Netanyahu, who has sought immunity in the past, said over the weekend that he doesn’t support an ally’s efforts to legally shield him. He says he’s the victim of a witch hunt by opponents of his right-wing agenda who want to hound him out of office with criminal charges because they haven’t managed to oust him at the ballot box.

Tuesday’s vote was called after Netanyahu’s joint administration with Defense Minister Benny Gantz collapsed in December, just seven months into its term.

Gantz fought Netanyahu to a draw in the three previous elections, but lost most of his following after he teamed up in government with the prime minister last year, leaving the opposition without a clear leader to rally around. Exit polls show his Blue and White party, which amassed 35 parliamentary seats at its height, shrinking to seven or eight.

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