Former Defense Minister Naftali Bennett, a rival to Netanyahu who has not ruled out including his right-wing party in the prime minister’s bloc, received appeals from both sides, but remained silent about his intentions the day after Tuesday’s election.
Meanwhile, Netanyahu’s Likud party pressured other former members who joined a new right-wing party called New Hope to return to the fold. “This will not happen,” Ze’ev Elkin, a member of the targeted New Hope Party, declared in a radio interview.
The biggest impact may be the suggestion by some Likud members that partnering with the small Islamist party the United Arab List could put Netanyahu’s coalition in the majority and eliminate the need for Israelis to return to the polls for the fifth time since spring 2019.
“It is our duty to do everything in our power to prevent a fifth election,” coalition president Micky Zohar told the Ynet media site. Some members of Netanyahu’s bloc have previously pledged not to serve in a government with an Arab party.
Netanyahu It appears he won the most seats in Tuesday’s election. But his path to the ruling majority has become more difficult as the official vote count continues. Final results are not expected until Friday, and the absence of a decisive winner could prolong the political deadlock in Israel.
With nearly 97 percent of the vote counted on Wednesday, Likud secured 30 seats in the 120-seat Knesset, the Israeli parliament. Netanyahu’s coalition of right-wing and religious parties appeared to win 52 seats.
Even adding seven seats that Bennett controls will not put Netanyahu at the top, dashing hopes in the prime minister’s camp that a conservative coalition is within reach. The prospect, suggested by polls published Tuesday night, cheered Likud headquarters and prompted Netanyahu to initially declare a “great victory” on Twitter.
But by the time he addressed his supporters after 2 a.m., early vote counting instead indicated that more impasse was to come. He called for an end to the stalemate, saying, “We cannot in any way drag the country into a fifth election. We must form a stable government now.”
The ruling majority seemed equally out of reach for the anti-Netanyahu parties, ranging from disaffected conservatives to Arab-Israeli communists.
Initial results gave the anti-Netanyahu parties 57 seats, in addition to another 11 seats controlled by two Arab factions. But in previous elections, these groups were unable to negotiate a power-sharing deal that would topple the prime minister.
Adding to the uncertainty is an unusually high number of absentee ballots from members of the military, diplomats abroad and people under quarantine under COVID-19 precautions. That 450,000 vote estimate, expected to count this week, could provide dramatic flips in the final count.
“These are very close elections,” said Johanan Plesner, president of the Israel Democracy Institute. “Nothing has been decided.”
Three previous elections in the past two years have failed to form a functioning government, and lawmakers are once again facing a period of intense bargaining as forces pro and anti-Netanyahu try to muster a majority.
Polls have shown that Israeli policy remains caught in a deep divide, especially over Netanyahu. For the fourth time in a row, voters were almost evenly split between voters wanting to get rid of Israel’s longest-serving prime minister and those hoping to continue his 14-year rule.
The prime minister, who is facing a criminal trial on charges of bribery, fraud and other corruption, has failed to gain a majority in the previous three votes. Each time, he escaped the refusal of the opposition parties to join his ranks against him. In the previous vote, the center-left parties rejected the opportunity to form a majority by inviting the Arab faction to join their coalition.
Some of the prime minister’s critics have expressed their belief that the elections may have thwarted Netanyahu’s bid to hold on to power. The vote followed a campaign in which the prime minister and his allies sought to demonize his opponents and discredit the judicial system that is suing him.
“In many ways, these elections are a confirmation of the strength of Israeli democracy, in the face of an accomplished politician’s attempts to subordinate electoral and judicial processes to his own political needs and avoid the legal fate that awaits him,” said Chuck Frelic, a former deputy national security advisor.
Bennett, the former Likud defense minister who split from Netanyahu to form his party, will still bring a lot of bargaining power that will begin. He did not rule out serving in Netanyahu’s new government, despite the fact that the two former allies hate each other.
Another, and more likely, broker emerged when the United Arab Islamic List won enough votes to enter the Knesset threshold with five seats. Party leader Mansour Abbas had defected with a larger group of Arab parties, in reference to this He was ready to deal with Netanyahu In exchange for more concessions and spending for the Arab minority in the country, which has a population of two million.
While some Likud members have indicated their willingness to join a team, it is unlikely that the Religious Muslims Party will join directly into Netanyahu’s coalition of right-wing Jewish nationalists. But he could help the prime minister by cutting off any anti-Netanyahu majority. Conversely, he could throw his support in the other direction, and according to Israeli media, he has already agreed to meet next week with the leader of anti-Netanyahu parties, Yair Lapid.
“We are ready to hold talks with the two sides,” Abbas said on Wednesday in a radio interview. “If an offer is received, we’ll sit down and talk.”
Other winners in the emerging vote totals include parties on both ends of the political spectrum. The left-leaning Labor and Meretz parties, who struggled in the last elections, won seven better seats than expected.
Political observers say that if Netanyahu is able to form a majority with these partners, he will be the most conservative in Israel’s history. “Netanyahu will be in the hands of the most extreme elements,” Plesner said.
Cunningham reported from Istanbul.