Deeply Polarized Israel Fails to Anoint a Leader Once Again
Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s prime minister, gestures as he speaks during an event in Tel Aviv, Israel. (Photographer: Kobi Wolf/Bloomberg)

Deeply Polarized Israel Fails to Anoint a Leader Once Again

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No clear winner emerged from Israel’s fourth election in two years, leaving legally embattled Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu scrambling to woo political rivals as he struggles to cling to power.

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

With about 87% of the votes counted, neither the prime minister nor his opponents controlled enough seats in parliament to command a majority of its 120 seats. Netanyahu’s fate, the partial vote indicated, could rest on his ability to co-opt a former ally who challenged him for the premiership this time -- and possibly a breakaway Arab party.

Deeply Polarized Israel Fails to Anoint a Leader Once Again

Failure could tip Israel toward a fifth election.

It was that prospect that Netanyahu invoked in a brief speech where he called on potential partners from Israel’s right wing to join him in government.

“We must not drag Israel to new elections, to a fifth election,” he said early Wednesday to a crowd of cheering supporters from his Likud party. “We must build a stable government now!”

Potential Kingmaker

Three former members of his previous cabinets have broken with him to create parties of their own and in this campaign were aligned with the opposition. Two have already ruled out sitting with the prime minister in government. That set up the predominantly religious-nationalist Yamina party on course to win seven seats, as a must-have partner.

Netanyahu said he’s already contacted Yamina’s leader, Naftali Bennett, with whom he has had a contentious relationship over the years. Bennett, who has served in previous Netanyahu governments, has said it’s “vital” to keep Israel from another election. But he hasn’t said whether he’ll support the prime minister again.

With Yamina, Netanyahu and his declared allies would control 59 parliamentary seats, two shy of a parliamentary majority, Israeli media reported. That could force Netanyahu, who spent previous campaigns disparaging Israel’s Arab minority and its leaders, to seek the backing of an Arab slate. Netanyahu courted the leader of the United Arab List during this campaign, and Wednesday morning tallies showed it clearing the threshold needed to enter parliament, with a minimum of four seats.

Individual Arab lawmakers have joined past Israeli coalitions as members of Zionist parties, but a slate of Arab candidates has never done so, out of a combination of mistrust among Jewish politicians and the unwillingness of Arab factions to serve in a Zionist government. During the 1990s, however, Arab parties agreed to vote with minority governments to prop up leaders seeking peace with the Palestinians, and Netanyahu could pursue a similar route.

Still, the electoral picture can still shift. Because Israel’s political system is heavily splintered -- a dozen parties appear poised to enter parliament -- even small changes in the distribution of parliamentary seats can tilt the scales.

Once all votes are tallied, President Reuven Rivlin will invite the leader of the bloc seen as strongest to try to form a government.

On Trial

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.

He maintains 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. The prime minister has said he’ll go to trial and win.

Netanyahu’s Likud appears to have won fewer parliamentary seats than last year, reinforcing the impression that the prime minister is being buoyed by die-hard supporters, and barely helped by one-off achievements.

A world-leading coronavirus vaccination campaign didn’t give him the dramatic boost he had hoped for, nor did normalization agreements with four former foes in the Middle East and Africa.

The same applied in previous elections, when diplomatic gifts such as the Trump administration’s recognition of Israeli sovereignty in part of the Golan Heights didn’t swing things in Netanyahu’s favor.

Election Fatigue

Turnout, at 67.2%, declined from the last election as voting fatigue set in, and was the lowest since 2013. Final results will be published 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.

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

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