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Bibi or not to be? Israeli voters wait to see if Netanyahu survived another close vote

Instead of breaking the impasse, Israel's "do-over" election yesterday delivered almost a mirror image of the April contest, even as the final votes are being counted, writes Margaret Evans.

Once again, Netanyahu's Likud party didn't win enough seats for a majority

Benjamin Netanyahu and his Likud party failed to win a clear majority in the Israeli elections on Sept. 18. (Ronen Zvulun/Reuters)

One country, two elections and an outcome that points to two very different and entrenched visions of what direction Israelis would like to see their country take.

Both coalesce around a single question: Should Benjamin Netanyahu, or Bibi as he's universally known here, be the man to lead it?

Just take a walk down Emek Refaim, a well-known street in a West Jerusalem neighbourhood called the German Colony to feel the divide. 

"It's not over yet," said a café and juice bar owner who preferred not to give his name, talking about the second stalemate delivered by Israeli voters in six months in yesterday's do-over election.

The first, in April, ended in a tie between Netanyahu's right-wing Likud party and the centre-left Blue and White Party under former army chief Benny Gantz. They finished with 35 seats apiece. 

That's far from the 61 needed for a majority in the Israeli Knesset, or Parliament, but a good basis for the coalition-building that is synonymous with Israel's system of proportional representation. 

But instead of breaking the impasse, yesterday's vote, with a few exceptions, delivered almost a mirror image of the April contest, even as the final votes are being counted. 

"If we want a country that is called Israel, it has to be Bibi," said the café owner when asked who should try to form a government in the face of the results.

But cross the street and speak to part-time barista Ariel Ben Dor, and you'll meet a member of the anyone-but-Bibi camp.

"Me, personally, and I think many other people, would want to see Bibi out," said the 27-year-old university student. "And hopefully, eventually, not now probably, there will be new laws that will limit how many times one person can have in office in a row. Or at all."

'No possible government without Likud'

If Netanyahu manages to come out of the current impasse on top, it will be his fifth term in office. 

His attempt at it in April was foiled by a disagreement with one-time ally Avigdor Leiberman in a dispute over how much power Netanyahu was giving to Israel's religious right in exchange for their political support.

Lieberman, the hard-right secular leader of Israel Beitenu, refused to back Netanyahu then and now finds himself in the position of a potential kingmaker again. 

Lieberman is calling for a national unity government with

Netanyahu's Likud and Gantz but without the ultra-Orthodox or national religious parties.  

"Mathematically, there is no possible government without Likud," said Reuven Hazan, a political scientist at Jerusalem's Hebrew University. "That's pretty much of a certainty. The question is, do we get Likud with Netanyahu or not?"

Exercise in coalition-building

Since last night, both Gantz and Netanyahu have been behaving as though they have won the right to try and form a government. 

The Israeli president will ask one of them to do so based on the number of "recommendations" by the parties that have won seats in the Knesset.      

On Wednesday, as the results came in during the early hours, Gantz told supporters he'll pursue a broad unity government, an idea that is popular with many Israelis given the divided nature of the country. But his Blue and White Party has campaigned on a pledge that they won't sit with Likud as long as Netanyahu is at its helm.

University student and part-time barista Ariel Ben Dor puts himself in the anyone-but-Netanyahu camp. (Stephanie Jenzer/CBC)

Likud loyalists have shown no sign of tossing their leader over the side — especially one who has delivered them so many election wins. 

Complicating the picture of "what next" are corruption allegations hanging over the Israeli prime minister's head. He'll face a hearing in early October.  

His critics say he's desperate to form what they're calling an "immunity coalition" because he hopes to control a parliament that would grant him protection from prosecution. 

"With every term in office, he's becoming more of a populist, more divisive, more right-wing and more corrupt," said Hazan, who believes Netanyahu will face prosecution even if he does remain prime minister.

Hazan said Netanyahu is still able to garner support among his own base because of the emphasis so many Israelis place on security over domestic issues.

"And Netanyahu can say that he delivers on security," said Hazan, pointing to his relationship with the leaders of both Russia and the United States, and his success in having US President Donald Trump recognize Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights, contrary to international law.

"It makes the people who vote security think that that we have a world class leader who is delivering. So, if he's corrupt  … still, it's a worthy bargain."

'We want a different face for our country'

But many voters on the centre-left and left did, in a sense, join forces in yesterday's vote to deny Netanyahu an outright victory, voting strategically to keep him from holding the reins of power again — or so they hope.

"We want a different face for our country," said Michal Davis on Tuesday, outside the polling station Netanyahu himself had just voted at. 

"With a broken heart, I'm voting for Benny Gantz. Not because I don't like him, but I prefer the traditional Labour Party." Once-powerful Labour, the party of Golda Meir and Yitzhak Rabin, was reduced to just a handful of seats in Tuesday's election. 

If it appears that this time, as in the last, forming a new government remains out of reach, there is another possibility. But given the mood in the country, it's hard to see how politicians could send people back to the polls for a third time.

About the Author

Margaret Evans

Europe correspondent

Margaret Evans is a correspondent based in the CBC News London bureau. A veteran conflict reporter, Evans has covered civil wars and strife in Angola, Chad and Sudan, as well as the myriad battlefields of the Middle East.