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Westlake Legal Group > elections  > After Tight Israeli Election, Netanyahu’s Tenure Appears Perilous

After Tight Israeli Election, Netanyahu’s Tenure Appears Perilous

JERUSALEM — Israel’s election was too close to call early Wednesday, with neither Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu nor his chief rival, the former army chief Benny Gantz, a centrist, immediately commanding enough support to form a majority coalition, according to exit polls.

But Mr. Gantz’s Blue and White party appeared to have come out ahead of Mr. Netanyahu’s conservative Likud, giving a small third party the power to decide the outcome. And his avowed desire to form a unity government including both their parties made it likely that, if the projections held, Mr. Gantz would be given the first chance of forming a government.

The murky outcome itself was a humiliating blow to Mr. Netanyahu, 69, the nation’s longest-serving prime minister, who forced the do-over election when he failed to assemble a coalition in May, rather than let Mr. Gantz have a try. For the second time in a row, his onetime deputy, Avigdor Liberman, denied Mr. Netanyahu a majority, this time urging the formation of a unity government.

“According to the current results, Netanyahu did not complete his mission,” Mr. Gantz told a crowd of cheering supporters in Tel Aviv early Wednesday. “We did.”

“Israeli society is strong,” he added, “but it is wounded, and the time has come to heal it.”

Long renowned as a political magician, Mr. Netanyahu campaigned frenetically right up until the polls closed Tuesday night, warning right-wing Jewish voters that Arabs were turning out in large numbers and flouting Election Day bans on campaign propaganda to spur his supporters into action.

With indictments against him looming in three corruption cases, the election’s less-than-vindicating apparent outcome puts his future in grave jeopardy. As prime minister, he could stay in his post even if indicted, under Israeli law. And he could press his coalition to grant him immunity from prosecution. But as a lesser minister or ordinary lawmaker, he would have to resign if charged.

Israeli exit polls have often proven unreliable, and the official results, expected to trickle in overnight, could change the picture sharply. Many Israelis recalled the election of 1996, when they went to bed with the Labor leader Shimon Peres as the winner and woke up in the morning with Mr. Netanyahu as their next prime minister.

ImageWestlake Legal Group merlin_160978839_0fdbaaf0-efbc-4297-a008-58cecda0e982-articleLarge After Tight Israeli Election, Netanyahu’s Tenure Appears Perilous Netanyahu, Benjamin Likud Party (Israel) Lieberman, Avigdor Joint List (Israel) Israel Gantz, Benny elections Blue and White (Israeli Political Party)

Benny Gantz arriving at the Blue and White party’s headquarters after the polls closed.CreditCorinna Kern/Reuters

The two main contenders had offered Israelis starkly different choices.

Mr. Netanyahu was aiming for a narrow coalition with right-wing and ultra-Orthodox parties, who had promised to grant him immunity as he vowed to annex a large swath of the occupied West Bank. His heavy reliance on the ultra-Orthodox parties would only perpetuate and even expand what many see as their disproportionate influence over matters of religion and state.

Mr. Gantz pledged to forge a broad, secular government aimed at curbing the influence of the ultra-Orthodox, protecting the institutions of democracy and rule of law and healing internal divisions. He pledged to govern “from the center out,” saying 80 percent of Israelis agreed on 80 percent of the issues.

But in the hours after the election, Israel was effectively on hold, suspended between those two visions and unclear about its path forward.

Just five months after the last inconclusive ballot, the country could now face weeks of feverish coalition negotiations, political paralysis, brinkmanship and instability. A new government could take until November to be formed, marking a full year in campaign mode, a first for Israeli politics.

The process will begin in a few days when President Reuven Rivlin invites party representatives to recommend their choice for prime minister. Mr. Rivlin will give the mandate to the candidate with the best chance of forming a viable coalition, and has pledged to move as quickly as possible and do all he can to avoid a deadlock and a third election.

He could also bring Mr. Gantz and Mr. Netanyahu together for informal talks even before the final, official results are in.

The clearest winner on Tuesday, according to exit polls, was Mr. Liberman, the longtime Netanyahu ally turned nemesis who leads an ultranationalist secular party.

Mr. Netanyahu has forged an ironclad bond with ultra-Orthodox Israelis.CreditSergey Ponomarev for The New York Times

Mr. Liberman immediately moved to play the role of kingmaker, urging the formation of a “broad government, not a government that fights for its survival week to week, from one no-confidence motion to another.”

Speaking after exits polls came out on Tuesday night, he insisted he would stick to his campaign promise that his Yisrael Beiteinu party would not join a right-wing government that depended on ultra-Orthodox support.

“We only have one option,” he told supporters. “A broad, liberal, national government made up of Yisrael Beiteinu, Likud and Blue and White.”

Had Mr. Netanyahu come away with a clear victory, Mr. Liberman would have put the country through a costly, unwanted and exhausting second election for nothing. Instead, it appeared that he had triggered the do-over ballot, set the agenda for the contest and emerged from it in strong position to help decide Israel’s next leader.

For Mr. Gantz, 60, the preliminary results held the promise of a great achievement. A newcomer to politics, his first run in April ended in a tie for Likud and Blue and White. Now he is positioned to potentially take over as prime minister.

A late wave of exit polls showed Blue and White with a slight edge over Likud in two polls and the two coalitions tied in another poll. None of the surveys gave either man a governing majority.

The center-left had been waiting for many years for a candidate with the security credentials and stature to be a standard-bearer against Mr. Netanyahu, who has presented himself as the only leader capable of protecting Israel.

Avigdor Liberman, a onetime Netanyahu ally.CreditSergey Ponomarev for The New York Times

But the path to forming a unity government could be complicated. Mr. Gantz has pledged not to sit join a government with a prime minister who is facing indictment, while Mr. Netanyahu is not likely to give up easily on another chance at the helm.

“Someone is going to have to fold,” said Reuven Hazan, a professor of political science at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, in an interview late Tuesday night. “Either Likud goes into a government without Netanyahu, or Gantz goes into a government with Netanyahu. It’s anybody’s guess. And right now, there’s no incentive for either of them to do it.”

Younger Likud leaders have signaled their desire for the chance to succeed Mr. Netanyahu. But his allies were in a defensive crouch on Tuesday.

“There won’t be an ousting of Netanyahu,” said Miri Regev, his culture minister and a Likud firebrand popular with the party’s grass roots. “We are all behind Netanyahu.”

Still, some rank-and-file Likud members gathered at the party’s election-night headquarters in Tel Aviv said bluntly that he had become a liability.

“I think Likud would have done far better with someone else at the top,” said Haim Guterman, 26, of Petach Tikva.

Mr. Netanyahu’s desperate-sounding campaign appeals had become a mainstay of Israeli elections, but if the exit polls were right, for the first time all of them may be proved true: His own voters were indeed being outnumbered, and right-wing votes were indeed being wasted on a small extremist party, Otzma Yehudit, that did not clear the threshold to be seated in Parliament.

In perhaps the most cutting twist, the Arabs did indeed flock to the polls “in droves,” Israeli news outlets reported: Turnout among Arab citizens appeared to surge past 60 percent, up from just 49 percent in April.

“Netanyahu discovered that incitement has a heavy price,” said Ayman Odeh, chairman of the Joint List of predominantly Arab parties.

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