Anti-Arab campaign fails to give Netanyahu clear majority in Israel election

The National    /   September 18, 2019

While the ballots are still being counted, the prime minister doesn’t appear to have secured the majority he needs to keep his job and dodge a corruption indictment.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu fell short of a parliamentary majority with his religious and nationalist allies in Tuesday’s national elections, partial results indicated, setting the stage for a period of coalition negotiations that could threaten his political future and even clear the way for him to be tried on corruption charges.

Initial partial results showed challenger Benny Gantz’s centrist Blue and White party tied with Mr Netanyahu’s Likud. While the results do not guarantee that Mr Gantz will be the next prime minister, they signalled that Mr Netanyahu, who has led the country for over 10 years, could have trouble holding on to the job. It dealt a new blow to Israel’s longest-serving leader who was already weakened by the inability to put together an administration after an inconclusive election in April.

Addressing his supporters early on Wednesday, Mr Netanyahu refused to concede defeat and vowed to work to form a new government that excludes Arab parties. But he also did not declare victory.

But his office confirmed on Wednesday that he had cancelled his planned trip to the United Nations General Assembly in New York next week, an event he ordinarily uses to advance Israeli interests on the world stage.

His planned visit to the US next week, where he was also to meet with President Donald Trump, will not take place. There was no word whether the meeting would be rescheduled.

His campaign focused heavily on attacking and questioning the loyalty of Arab-Israelis – a strategy that drew accusations of racism and incitement from Arab leaders.

“In the coming days we will convene negotiations to assemble a strong Zionist government and to prevent a dangerous anti-Zionist government,” he said. He claimed that Arab parties “negate the existence of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state” and “glorify bloodthirsty murderers”.

The partial results released Wednesday by the Central Election Commission were based on 35 per cent of the vote counted. The three Israeli TV channels reported the same outcome, based on more than 90 per cent of the vote counted, but did not explain the discrepancy with the commission’s percentage.

Final results are expected Wednesday and could still swing in Mr Netanyahu’s favour.

Blue and White party leader Benny Gantz reacts at the party’s headquarters following the announcement of exit polls. Reuters

The early results indicated that the Joint List, comprised of the main Arab parties, had taken the third most seats – around 12. Arab parties have never sat in government.

According to the partial results, the parties of Mr Gantz and Mr Netanyahu received 32 seats each in the 120-member parliament. Likud, with its allies of religious and ultranationalist parties, mustered 56 seats — five short of the needed majority.

This means both Likud and Blue and White will have difficulty setting up a governing coalition without the support of Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu party. That put Mr Lieberman, a former protege of Mr Netanyahu’s who has become one of the prime minister’s fiercest rivals, in the position of kingmaker.

Mr Netanyahu’s campaign promoted images of him jetting off to world capitals and boasting of warm relations with powerful leaders, most notably US President Donald Trump.

At the same time, he issued repeated doomsday warnings that his opponents were scheming with politicians from the country’s Arab minority to “steal” the election.

He tried, and failed, to pass legislation that would allow cameras in polling stations, a step he said was needed to crack down on alleged fraud in Arab towns.

Facebook suspended his account for 24 hours last week after it published a post saying that “Arabs want to annihilate all of us”.

Palestinians play a board game and cards as television screen displays news about the results of Israel’s parliamentary election, in a coffee shop in Hebron in the Israeli-occupied West Bank. Reuters

Mr Netanyahu also sought to appeal to his hard-line base with a number of election promises, including plans to annex all of Israel’s settlements in the West Bank.

His proposal, which could extinguish any remaining hopes for a Palestinian state, were condemned by much of the world, including Jordan and Saudi Arabia. But the US remained muted, suggesting he had co-ordinated with Washington ahead of time.

Mr Netanyahu’s warnings about Arabs appeared to backfire, turning off some Jewish voters and driving heavy turnout in the Arab sector.

Ayman Odeh, leader of the main Arab faction in parliament, said Mr Netanyahu’s repeated attacks had boosted turnout and hurt the prime minister in the end.

“There’s a heavy price to pay for incitement,” he told Channel 13 TV.

Addressing his supporters late Tuesday, a jubilant Mr Lieberman said he saw only “one option”: a broad, secular coalition with both Blue and White and Likud.

“We’ve always said that a unity government is only possible in emergency situations. And I tell you and I tell every citizen today watching us on television: the situation, both security-wise and economically, are emergency situations,” he said. “The country, therefore, requires a broad government.”

Early on Wednesday, Mr Gantz told a cheering rally of supporters that while it was too soon to declare victory, he had begun speaking to potential partners and hoped to form a unity government.

“Starting tonight we will work to form a broad unity government that will express the will of the people,” he said.

Attention will now focus on Israel’s president, Reuven Rivlin, who is to choose the candidate he believes has the best chance of forming a stable coalition. Mr Rivlin is to consult with all parties in the coming days before making his decision.

After that, the prime minister designate would have up to six weeks to form a coalition. If that fails, Mr Rivlin could give another candidate for prime minister 28 days to form a coalition. If that doesn’t work, new elections would be triggered yet again.

Mr Rivlin has said he will do everything possible to avoid such a scenario.

Mr Lieberman called for an immediate start to negotiations and predicted it could be wrapped up quickly. But such a deal promises to be complicated.

Avigdor Lieberman, leader of the Yisrael Beitenu party, speaks after early exit polls in the general election. EPA

Mr Gantz is a former military chief who oversaw wars in Gaza and bragged about sending Palestinians back to the Stone Age has presented himself as a unifying figure in a divided nation.

He has ruled out a partnership with Likud if Mr Netanyahu remains at the helm at a time when he is expected to be indicted on criminal charges.

But in his speech, he made no such conditions. “I intend to speak with everyone,” he said, without mentioning Mr Netanyahu.

Mr Lieberman, who leads a nationalist but secular party, is unlikely to sit with Arab parties on the left or Ultra-Orthodox religious parties on the right.

That could limit both Mr Gantz’s and Mr Netanyahu’s ability to manoeuvre and could potentially put pressure on the longtime leader, who has ruled for over a decade, to step aside.

Likud members said they remained behind their leader.

“We have the basic principle of standing by the party leader who was elected in the party primary, which is why we won’t take action against Netanyahu,” said lawmaker Micky Zohar, a loyalist of the prime minister.

Mr Netanyahu had sought an outright majority with his allies in hopes of passing legislation to give him immunity from the expected indictment.

Israel’s attorney general has recommended charging the prime minister with bribery, fraud and breach of trust in three scandals, pending a hearing scheduled next month. A formal indictment would increase the pressure on Mr Netanyahu to step aside if he does not have immunity.

He tried to portray himself as a seasoned statesman uniquely qualified to lead the country through challenging times during an alarmist campaign marked by mudslinging and slogans that were condemned as racist.

Mr Gantz tried to paint Mr Netanyahu as divisive and scandal-plagued, offering himself as a calming influence and honest alternative.

The election was Israel’s second of the year.

In April’s vote, Mr Netanyahu appeared to have the upper hand.

But Mr Lieberman, his mercurial ally-turned-rival, refused to join the new coalition, citing excessive influence it granted the Ultra-Orthodox parties. Without a parliamentary majority, Mr Netanyahu dissolved parliament and called a new election.

Mr Lieberman’s gamble paid off on Tuesday, and partial results indicated his party had nearly doubled in strength, with nine seats.

Israel’s election commission said 69.4 per cent of all eligible voters cast ballots by the time polls closed on Tuesday evening, a slightly larger number than took part in April’s vote. Turnout in April’s elections was 68.5 per cent.