World

Israel election count nearly complete, but path to a new government remains elusive

Israel looked set to slide back into political deadlock on Wednesday as the final votes were being tallied from the third election in less than a year, with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's Likud party holding on to a solid lead but falling short of the outright parliamentary majority needed to form a government.

Netanyahu claims victory, though coalition numbers, imminent trial stand in the way

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu explains some elections results during a meeting with his nationalist allies and his Likud party members at the Knesset in Jerusalem on Wednesday. (Sebastian Scheiner/The Associated Press)

Israel looked set to slide back into political deadlock on Wednesday as the final votes were being tallied from the third election in less than a year, with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's Likud party holding on to a solid lead but falling short of the outright parliamentary majority needed to form a government.

In an angry tirade, Netanyahu conceded that he did not have the parliamentary support to form a new government right away. But he still tried to claim victory as he lashed out at his main opponent and disparaged the leading Arab party — the third largest in parliament — as irrelevant.

"This is what the nation decided," he said. "The public gave me more votes than any other candidate for prime minister in the nation's history."

Netanyahu had been desperate for a strong showing ahead of his trial, which is scheduled to start March 17. Installing a new government would give him an important political boost and potentially allow him to legislate his way out of the legal quagmire.

With over 99 per cent of the votes counted, Netanyahu's Likud led the way with 36 seats, ahead of challenger Benny Gantz's Blue and White party, with 33 seats. Yet with his allies, Netanyahu's right-wing camp held a total of only 58 seats, three shy of the 61 needed to form a government and no clear path to reaching the threshold. 

In a stunning rebuke to Netanyahu, the Joint List, an umbrella group of Arab-led parties, finished third with 15 seats. It was an all-time high for the Joint List, boosted by voters furious at what was perceived as racist incitement by Netanyahu throughout the campaign against the country's Arab minority.

"Our public feels its power and it wants to exert that power," Joint List leader Ayman Odeh told Israeli Channel 13 TV. "We said no to Benjamin Netanyahu's approach."

In a meeting with his political allies Wednesday, Netanyahu continued to portray himself as a winner, despite the likely impasse he faces.

"The Likud under my leadership became the largest party in a knockout," he said. "The public's decision must be respected."

He did not respond to a reporter's question about lacking a parliamentary majority. But he again lashed out at the Joint List, saying it should not even be considered in the calculations for forming a new government.

The Joint List "isn't even part of the equation," he said, claiming its members are hostile to the state.

Power-sharing deal rejected

While the Arab parties have never sat in an Israeli coalition, they have worked to support policies from the outside, a step they could take again if they can resolve their differences with Gantz.

Gantz also has ruled out a partnership with the Joint List, making it unlikely he can cobble together a coalition either. That means Israel could be headed for deadlock, extending nearly a year of political paralysis.

Blue and White party leader Benny Gantz, seen on election night in Tel Aviv, has ruled out a partnership with the Joint List, making his path (Sebastian Scheiner/The Associated Press)

Netanyahu has been charged with fraud, breach of trust and accepting bribes for his actions in a series of scandals that included accepting lavish gifts from wealthy friends, and allegedly offering favours to media moguls in exchange for positive press coverage. Netanyahu denies wrongdoing and accuses the media, police and prosecutors of orchestrating a witch-hunt aimed at ousting him against the will of the people.

Netanyahu is expected to use his position to lash out at his prosecutors and rally public support. If he forms a new government, he might also seek ways to delay or derail the proceedings.

Under Israeli law, a sitting prime minister is not required to resign if indicted. But the law is fuzzy about whether a candidate for prime minister under indictment can be given authority to form a new government, and the country's Supreme Court is expected to weigh in on the matter.

Coronavirus impacts vote

Israel's president will soon begin consultations with the elected parties, which then recommend to him their preferred selection to lead the government. Typically, the candidate with the most recommendations is asked to try to form a government. As leader of the largest party, that is likely to be Netanyahu, even if as in the previous two elections his path is unclear.

Blue and White has said it would consider promoting legislation that would prevent an indicted prime minister from forming a government. But passing such legislation, particularly in the two weeks before the president taps a candidate to form a government, appeared unlikely, especially following an opinion against the idea by the Knesset's legal adviser.

An Israeli election monitor wearing a mask and gloves on Wednesday holds a ballot for the Likud party as votes cast by Israelis in home quarantine over coronavirus concerns are counted. (Ronen Zvulun/Reuters)

The most straightforward way out of the deadlock would be a power-sharing deal between Gantz and Netanyahu, whose parties together control a parliamentary majority. But Gantz has ruled out a partnership as long as Netanyahu heads Likud.

Results were delayed because of new verification procedures and complications arising from tallying some 4,000 ballots cast by Israelis confined to home quarantine after possible exposure to the coronavirus.

Election workers were counting those ballots while wearing surgical masks and gloves. Israel has reported 15 cases of the new coronavirus, which has infected tens of thousands and killed at least 3,100 people worldwide.

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