Netanyahu facing uncertain future amid Israeli election results

No clear winner has emerged from Israel’s election, leaving a question mark over who will be the coming prime minister.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s grip on power was hanging in the balance Wednesday after local TV channels projected him trailing his centrist rival Benny Gantz by just one seat, following a re-run general election, according to CNN.

Both Netanyahu and Gantz have vowed they can form a government, even though projected results give neither man a majority in the new Parliament.

Israeli politics now appears all-but-deadlocked and destined for complex negotiations between the two main parties and the smaller parties over possible coalition arrangements.

Addressing his Blue and White party supporters in Tel Aviv a few hours after the polls closed, Gantz struck a tone of measured optimism, saying that an era of “polarization and antagonism” now lay in the past with “unity and reconciliation” being the way forward, according to CNN.

Gantz said contacts with other parties to build what he described as a “broad unity government” had already started.

“I intend to talk to everybody, starting tonight,” he said.

Netanyahu meanwhile, was hoarse as he addressed his Likud Party supporters, neither claiming victory nor conceding defeat.

“Israel needs a strong, stable, Zionist government committed to Israel as a national state for the Jewish people,” he said.

By Wednesday, all three of Israel’s three main TV news channels were projecting Gantz’s Blue and White winning 32 seats, to 31 seats for Netanyahu’s Likud, in the 120-seat Parliament.

By midday Wednesday well over half the votes had been counted, though official, certified, results are not expected for a few days.

What happens next?

All the leaders of parties which have secured representation in the Parliament are expected to begin consultations with Israel’s President Reuven Rivlin beginning Sunday. When that process is complete, usually after a few days, the President appoints the leader he believes has the best chance of success, to begin talks to form a coalition government.

If that turned out to be Netanyahu, then negotiations would likely need to take account of the corruption allegations swirling around him. A final pre-indictment hearing is scheduled for the first week of October. Netanyahu has denied all of the accusations.

But if the projected deadlock is borne out in the final results then neither Netanyahu nor Gantz will have a clear path to a coalition. This means the next few weeks, or even months, look set to be marked by intense, behind-the-scenes, political wrangling.

The former Defense Minister, Avigdor Liberman, leader of the Yisrael Beiteinu party — which TV channels projected Wednesday to come fourth with nine seats — could play a key role in coalition negotiations.

Ever since he dashed Netanyahu’s hopes of forming a right-wing and religious coalition after April’s election, Liberman has said he wants to see a national unity government made up of his own party, sitting alongside Likud and Blue and White.

Such a government would easily have a working majority in Parliament. But for it to happen, it would also need a change of position from Blue and White, which has said it will not sit in a government led by Netanyahu.

The Netanyahu era seems to be over

The most expected outcome of Tuesday elections in Israel has somehow become the biggest surprise. The era of Netanyahu, whose corruption cases loom ever larger, seems to be over.

The tie between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party and Benny Gantz’s Blue and White on about 33 seats each is a reflection of longtime division of Israeli society into two camps, according to MEE.

Yet even before Israelis know who their next PM is going to be, even before we know if the Netanyahu era is over, all political analysts agree the days of Netanyahu as we know him – “the magician”, the omnipotent leader of ”another league” – are certainly over.

So might be Netanyahu’s “immunity coalition” of far right-wing and Ultra-Orthodox parties, the much-coveted government he yearns for before facing indictment. The prime minister faces a hearing in his corruption cases in two weeks’ time.

Likud members, reluctant to talk openly and ordered to keep quiet, are failing to decide if Netanyahu is still a valuable asset or just a burden to his party.

They also know their opinion does not really matter at this point.

The ruthless premier, who almost dragged Israel into a war in the Gaza Strip a few days ago to postpone the elections (and was legally forbidden to do so), does not have many options but not many red lines either.

“’Wag the Dog’, the movie where a Hollywood director is hired to stage a fake war to save a failing presidential candidate, is a childish version of what Netanyahu is capable of doing,” a disgusted ex-general tells Middle East Eye, only half-joking.

On a more serious note, the prevailing assumption among analysts is that Netanyahu is willing to go into a unity government with his opponents for the first two years of the four-year term, to conduct his legal cases from prime minister’s office.    

After a second round of bloody, brutal, racist and poisonous election campaigns and their undecided result, Israeli society is left bleeding.

Poetic justice

Not all the news for Israel is bad. Had Netanyahu won, Israeli democracy would have taken a fatal blow. For now, at least, it is being kept on a life-support machine.

If you look for poetic justice, focus on two developments: the far-right ultra-radical, racist and anti-Arab Jewish Power party is out – and did not win enough votes to secure the four seats that could have handed Netanyahu his majority.

On the other hand, with 12 seats of the Palestinian Joint List is very much in.

The party described by Netanyahu’s campaign as traitors about to “annihilate” all Jews is the third-largest in Israel, and in almost every scenario its leader will become the head of the opposition, the one obliged by law to hold weekly meeting with the prime minister and get detailed reports on all issues involving security and military actions.

If Avigdor Lieberman, head of Yisrael Beiteinu party, goes down in history as the forefather of the Joint List, after obliging the Palestinian parties to join forces when he raised the electoral threshold to keep Arabs out of the parliament, Netanyahu will be remembered as the one whose dangerously vicious campaign brought even indifferent Arab voters to the voting booths.

His racist rhetoric and campaign played a huge role in boosting the Joint List’s presence in the Knesset.

Now Lieberman plays, as expected, an even more dramatic role: the kingmaker who is about to impose a unity government.

That is what he said before the elections, and it is what he said the morning after. His projected nine seats (a significant improvement over his five seats in April’s election) have the power to decide the future of Israel.

At the doorstep of his house in the illegal settlement of Hanokdim, he repeated his message plus a word to President Reuven Rivlin, a key person in the coalition game.

“The only option is a national-liberal unity government with Likud, Gantz and Yisrael Beiteinu. There is no chance to form a coalition with the Arab party, no chance to form a government with the Orthodox parties as they are now, no chance to hold a third round of elections as well,” he said.

“It is now up to President Rivlin to precipitate the process and take the necessary steps to form this unity government as fast as possible. We won’t budge an inch.”

Prior to the elections, Netanyahu rejected the very notion of a unity government and vowed to form a coalition with his “natural partners” the Orthodox and far-right parties.

Gantz, on the other hand, preached a unity government with Likud, but without Netanyahu as he faces three corruption cases.

Likud members vow not to desert Netanyahu and crown a new leader. “Likud does not stab its leaders in the back,” said Culture Minister Miri Regev. “This is not in the DNA of our party.”

It is true, but tricky. Just a couple of weeks ago all Likud MPs signed a declaration of loyalty to Netanyahu.

This is what they are bound to say openly. It is not necessarily what they think but dare not say.

“Likud members do understand it is time to say goodbye to Bibi,” Blue and White’s Zvi Hauser, once Netanyahu’s secretary of cabinet and close ally, according to MEE.

MP Michael Biton, who is also from the same party and known to be close to Gantz, says something vague enough to leave room for interpretation: Netanyahu can remain head of the Likud party and, if proven innocent, can come back after two years of Gantz in office and serve as PM.  

Confused? Rightfully so. All Israelis want to shorten the agony, but Netanyahu’s personality and his desperate need for an “immunity coalition” might prolong the process and legally drag it out until even Christmas.

The Israeli Jewish left deserves a word. The marriage of Meretz and Ehud Barak in the Democratic Union won only five seats. The Labor party has six. Gone is the discourse of peace, two states.

“Meretz has no place in a unity government, we aim at a new Jewish-Arab party,” former MP Mossi Raz, who ran as a Democratic Union candidate, tells MEE.

“I have reason to believe parts of the Arab Joint List might join us.”

That, of course, remains to be seen. In the immediate future, all eyes are still focused on Netanyahu.

Netanyahu’s expertise is to constantly declare some kind of state of emergency. He obviously obeys by the theory of Carl Schmitt, the political theorist who claimed that he who rules is the one who declares a state of emergency.

The prime minister made it into an art. Be it Ahmad Tibi or Iran, any opponent can be the cause for a state of emergency. Today, Lieberman has appropriated the system.

“Israeli security and economy are in a state of emergency,” he said. “That requires a speedy formation of a new government.”

That might be his way to facilitate both sides to make the necessary concessions to create a unity government. With Netanyahu or without him.

Lieberman will not shed a tear if the latter scenario materializes.