Netanyahu Within Range of Forming Government on Third Try

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02 mars 2020, 21.19

(Bloomberg) -- Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is within striking distance of forming Israel’s next government, exit polls showed, an outcome that bodes well for his efforts to stay out of court, and ill for attempts to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Netanyahu, recently indicted in three graft cases, had gambled on repeat elections to win a majority in parliament and possibly keep himself out of jail. In the third back-to-back round of voting in less than a year, the strategy may have finally paid off.

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Exit polls released by three television stations showed his Likud party and its religious and nationalist allies eclipsing the opposing camp led by former military chief Benny Gantz. Public opinion polls had suggested that Netanyahu’s prospects improved in the last stretch ahead of Monday’s race, and Likud appears to have won as many as 37 seats in parliament, five more than it did in the September vote. Gantz’s Blue and White bloc appeared roughly steady at 32 or 33 seats.

According to exit polls released by the television stations, Netanyahu’s bloc got 60 seats, while Gantz’s opposing camp won between 52 and 54. Former Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman’s six to eight seats could numerically allow Gantz to pull even, but any government Blue and White would be able to form would have to rest on the support of the Joint List of Arab parties, something that both factions have ruled out.

Netanyahu is close to victory after plunging his country into a yearlong political crisis while he maneuvered to stay in power and postpone his trial. “Thank you,” he said on Twitter on Monday night, with a heart emoji. Channel 12 reported that he has already reached out to potential partners, who agreed to join him in government.

Channel 13 reported that Netanyahu’s lawyers will ask for a delay to the March 17 start of his trial.

“If he gets one more seat, which is entirely possible, then a 61-seat narrow, right-wing government is huge for him,” said Simon Davies, a Tel Aviv-based pollster at Number 10 Strategies. “Even if it stays like this, he’s been hinting that there’s a couple of Blue and White members who will join his government. It looks pretty likely that he’ll form a government.”

At Likud headquarters, jubilant supporters shrieked and danced, waving the blue and white flags of the country and Likud. Gantz tweeted thanks to his supporters, and promised to “continue to fight for what we believe in.” When the exit polls came out at Blue and White headquarters, they were met with silence.

Netanyahu had consistently trailed Gantz in polls throughout the campaign until the last leg, when the discourse turned nastier and more personal. The prime minister repeatedly insinuated that the general was unstable, and his campaign was hurt by a leaked tape of a Gantz adviser calling the former military chief a potential “danger” to the people of Israel.

President Reuven Rivlin will begin consultations this week with the various parties that made it into parliament to see whom they recommend he assign to piece together the next governing coalition.

Seeking Reprieve

The results, if borne out in the official tally, take Israel back to where it was in May 2019, when Netanyahu could have formed a 60-seat government after the April ballot but instead disbanded parliament and engineered the September re-vote, which delivered another inconclusive result.

The political uncertainty has spooled out across a year in which Israel has been in confrontations with Iran-backed militants in the Gaza Strip, Lebanon and Syria. Decisive action has been put off on many fronts, and while the economy has been robust, risks are piling up.

A narrow government of about 60 seats would set the stage for a potentially rocky term where Netanyahu would have to navigate his legal woes, confrontations with Iran and its proxies, and the Trump administration’s proposal for Middle East peace. That blueprint heavily favors Israel, which can start annexing large chunks of West Bank territory over the objections of the Palestinians, who want it for their hoped-for state and have rejected the Trump plan.

But its call for Palestinian statehood -- no matter how stunted -- will anger some of Netanyahu’s nationalist allies.

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Palestinians were appalled by the latest election’s tentative outcome.

“It is obvious that settlement, occupation and apartheid have won the Israeli elections,” Saeb Erekat, the secretary-general of the Palestine Liberation Organization, said on Twitter. “Netanyahu’s campaign was about the continuation of the occupation and conflict. Which will force the people of the region to live by the sword: continuation of violence, extremism and chaos.”

Fawzi Barhoum, a spokesman for the Palestinian Hamas group that controls the Gaza Strip, said “the identity of any upcoming Israeli government will not change the nature of the conflict with this occupier, and considering it as an occupation entity that must be resisted. It will not affect the struggle of our people until this occupation is defeated.”

Netanyahu has been anxious to hold on to power because it’s his only hope of winning a reprieve from his trial on bribery and fraud charges. The prime minister, who was indicted in November, has been weakened by what he says are baseless graft allegations cooked up by left-wing opponents. A fifth term would give him the opportunity to try to push through legislation shielding an incumbent leader from prosecution.

“Israelis voiced their support for the man they perceive to have bringing them security and prosperity,” said Yohanan Plesner, the president of the Israel Democracy Institute research center. “At the same time, the country is heading towards constitutional uncertainty. On March 17th the prime minister’s trial will begin and the country will find itself in the unprecedented situation in which the man in charge of institutions of law and order will begin his fight to clear his name in court.”

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Netanyahu’s accused of illicitly accepting about $290,000 in gifts from wealthy friends and scheming to win sympathetic press coverage by shaping rules to benefit media moguls. The prime minister and his backers say he’s the victim of a politically motivated witch-hunt by opponents who deplore his nationalist agenda. He’s the first sitting Israeli leader to face criminal charges.

It was this taint of corruption that allowed political newcomer Gantz to mount the most serious challenge to Netanyahu since he was defeated after his first term by another former miltiary chief, Ehud Barak, in 1999.

Gantz didn’t enter politics until December 2018, and wasn’t one of the country’s storied generals. His political bloc is a mishmash of Netanyahu opponents ranging from a hawkish former defense minister who opposes Palelsitain statehood to more moderate politicians who support it. But his image, security credentials and message of uniting a divided nation were enough to attract a large following among many desperate to replace the nation’s longest-serving prime minister.

(Adds chart, updates with Gantz comments in eighth paragraph)

--With assistance from Alisa Odenheimer and Yaacov Benmeleh.

To contact the reporter on this story: Amy Teibel in Jerusalem at ateibel@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Benjamin Harvey at bharvey11@bloomberg.net

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