Netanyahu runs out of rabbits to pull out his hat
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Netanyahu runs out of rabbits to pull out his hat

As the dust settles on the second Israeli election of 2019, analysts reflect on the potential end of Bibi's decade in power and the new political landscape taking shape

Stephen is the Jewish News' Foreign Editor

  • Prime Minister Benjamin Netanya speaks at the Likud headquarters on elections night in Tel Aviv, on September 18, 2019. Photo by: JINIPIX
    Prime Minister Benjamin Netanya speaks at the Likud headquarters on elections night in Tel Aviv, on September 18, 2019. Photo by: JINIPIX
  • Heads of the Joint List party reacts as the first results in the Israeli Knesset elections are announced, September 17, 2019. as the first exit polls are announced on television. - Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his main challenger Benny Gantz were neck-and-neck in the country's general election after polls closed, exit surveys showed. Three separate exit polls carried by Israeli television stations showed Netanyahu's right-wing Likud and Gantz's centrist Blue and White alliance with between 31 and 34 parliament seats each out of 120. Photo by: Gil Eliyahu-JINIPIX
    Heads of the Joint List party reacts as the first results in the Israeli Knesset elections are announced, September 17, 2019. as the first exit polls are announced on television. - Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his main challenger Benny Gantz were neck-and-neck in the country's general election after polls closed, exit surveys showed. Three separate exit polls carried by Israeli television stations showed Netanyahu's right-wing Likud and Gantz's centrist Blue and White alliance with between 31 and 34 parliament seats each out of 120. Photo by: Gil Eliyahu-JINIPIX
  • Avigdor Lieberman, leader of the Israeli secular nationalist Yisrael Beiteinu party, gives an address at the party's electoral headquarters in Jerusalem late on September 17, 2019. - . Photo by: JINIPIX
    Avigdor Lieberman, leader of the Israeli secular nationalist Yisrael Beiteinu party, gives an address at the party's electoral headquarters in Jerusalem late on September 17, 2019. - . Photo by: JINIPIX
  • Benny Gantz. Photo by: Tomer Neuberg-JINIPIX
    Benny Gantz. Photo by: Tomer Neuberg-JINIPIX
  • Benny Gantz, former Israeli army chief of staff and candidate for prime minister of the Blue and White Israeli centrist political party, gives a speech after early exit polls in the general election during a rally with supporters in Tel Aviv, Israel, 17 September 2019. Early polls gave Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's Likud party and Benny Gantz's Blue and White party almost equal amount of Knesset seats in the Israeli general elections. Photo by: Tomer Neuberg-JINIPIX
    Benny Gantz, former Israeli army chief of staff and candidate for prime minister of the Blue and White Israeli centrist political party, gives a speech after early exit polls in the general election during a rally with supporters in Tel Aviv, Israel, 17 September 2019. Early polls gave Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's Likud party and Benny Gantz's Blue and White party almost equal amount of Knesset seats in the Israeli general elections. Photo by: Tomer Neuberg-JINIPIX
  • Heads of the Joint List party reacts as the first results in the Israeli Knesset elections are announced, September 17, 2019. as the first exit polls are announced on television. - Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his main challenger Benny Gantz were neck-and-neck in the country's general election after polls closed, exit surveys showed. Three separate exit polls carried by Israeli television stations showed Netanyahu's right-wing Likud and Gantz's centrist Blue and White alliance with between 31 and 34 parliament seats each out of 120. Photo by: Gil Eliyahu-JINIPIX
    Heads of the Joint List party reacts as the first results in the Israeli Knesset elections are announced, September 17, 2019. as the first exit polls are announced on television. - Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his main challenger Benny Gantz were neck-and-neck in the country's general election after polls closed, exit surveys showed. Three separate exit polls carried by Israeli television stations showed Netanyahu's right-wing Likud and Gantz's centrist Blue and White alliance with between 31 and 34 parliament seats each out of 120. Photo by: Gil Eliyahu-JINIPIX

A period of Israeli political horse-trading looked set to begin on Wednesday, after the two biggest parties failed to win a clear mandate to govern following Tuesday’s general election.

Analysts of all stripes predicted that the result may signal the beginning of the end of Benjamin Netanyahu’s 10-year reign, with the first court hearing into charges of bribery and corruption set to take place in a fortnight.

By Wednesday morning, with 92 percent of the vote counted, neither the Likud incumbent nor challenger Benny Gantz of Blue and White could claim outright victory, both winning 32 of the 120 Knesset seats.

The Joint List of Arab parties won 12 seats, the right-wing secular Yisrael Beitenu won nine, as did the strictly Orthodox party Shas. Another Charedi party, United Torah Judaism, won eight seats, and the right-wing settler coalition Yamina won seven. On the left, Labor-Gesher won six seats and Democratic Union won five.

Both Gantz and Netanyahu need smaller parties to form a government, but despite Gantz’s claim that “talks are underway to form a government,” neither bloc has enough seats for a parliamentary majority of 61 seats.

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Yisrael Beitenu, led by former minister Avigdor Lieberman, almost doubled its support, up from five seats in April, and now holds the balance of power.

As a result, Lieberman he has been labelled a “kingmaker”. His refusal to join Netanyahu’s government in April led to this week’s vote.

The final result of the vote may only be known later this week. Israel’s Central Elections Committee said it was still counting votes, amid accusations by Netanyahu of “voter fraud and irregularities,” particularly in Arab areas.

With all eyes on his next move, Lieberman told a campaign rally in Jerusalem on Tuesday night that “we have only one option – a national, liberal, broad government comprising Yisrael Beitenu, Likud and Blue and White”.

Such a solution would keep the strictly Orthodox from power for the first time in a generation and could threaten their grip on civil society functions, such as marriage, and threaten their IDF exemption. It could also affect prayer at the Western Wall.

“Since neither bloc attained a majority, a lot of political horse-trading will take place in the days to come,” said Colin Shindler, Emeritus Professor of Israel Studies at SOAS, University of London.

The task of asking a political leader to form a government now falls to Israeli President Reuven Rivlin. His office said he would “be guided by the need to form a government in Israel as quickly as possible and to implement the will of the people… as well as the need to avoid a third general election”.

There are several possibilities for forming a government, said Shindler. This includes “a broad coalition of the blocs – with or without Netanyahu,” with “rotational government [such as] two years for the Likud, two years for Blue and White”.

The situation was fluid, he warned, since “there may be defections to the other side,” but the main take-home point from the night was Netanyahu’s slip in status.

His legal woes, which have embroiled his wife Sara and other family members and friends, have been ongoing for years, and it is only in power that he can protect himself, by having his coalition partners grant him immunity.

At Likud headquarters on Tuesday evening, Netanyahu tried to sound upbeat, saying: “Soon, the plan of the century will be presented by my close friend President Trump and the negotiations with President Trump will shape the future of Israel.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanya speaks at the Likud headquarters on elections night in Tel Aviv, on September 18, 2019. Photo by: JINIPIX

In echoes of Theresa May’s ill-fated election rallying cry from 2017, he added: “Because of this, Israel needs a strong and stable Zionist government that is committed to Israel as a national state for the Jewish people… There can’t be a government supported by Arab parties.”

Yohanan Plesner, president of the Israel Democracy Institute, said: “We are witnessing a dramatic outcome. After a decade, there is a very high likelihood that Netanyahu is no longer going to be the prime minister.”

It could be “days, perhaps weeks, before we know the prime minister,” he said, adding: “This is an unprecedented situation, because neither Netanyahu nor Gantz has a majority.”

In the UK, Zionist group Yachad said the result meant that Netanyahu was “not a magician,” adding: “Despite his advantages as incumbent and his ruthless campaign, including violations of Israeli election laws, he has no clear path to governing.”

Shindler agreed that “it is unclear whether Netanyahu will survive,” adding: “The pre-indictment hearing will take place in a couple of weeks to determine whether charges of corruption, bribery and breach of trust will be laid.

“Netanyahu has been labelled ‘the magician’ in Israel for his political trickery, but it may just be that he has run out of rabbits to pull out of the hat.”

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