He’s nicknamed “the magician” for his ability to escape political calamity. But Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s hold on power appeared precarious Wednesday as nearly complete election results showed that his conservative Likud party and its allies fell short of a parliamentary majority.
With 95% of the votes counted, the rival Blue and White party, led by Benny Gantz, fought Netanyahu’s party to a virtual draw. Gantz and his center-left political partners did not garner a majority either, but the 60-year-old former military chief might be better positioned than the prime minister to strike the necessary deals to forge a coalition government.
Most likely, weeks of difficult coalition negotiations lie ahead, and a final official tally is probably still days away, with absentee ballots still to be counted.
Netanyahu’s failure to score a decisive victory left him vulnerable not only to being ejected from the post he has held for the last decade, but also to probable criminal corruption charges without the means to legally shield himself. If he had triumphed, the small far-right parties committed to teaming up with him had also expressed willingness to support measures that might have granted him immunity as a sitting prime minister.
Yossi Verter, a political analyst for the Haaretz newspaper, wrote that Netanyahu, perhaps the ultimate survivor in Israeli politics, had never been “as close to losing power, to a trial and perhaps even to prison down the road.”
“It’s very hard to see how he can form the next government,” Verter wrote.
In a token of how seriously Netanyahu takes his political predicament, a spokesman said Wednesday the Israeli leader was scrapping his plan to travel to the United Nations for the General Assembly next week. As Israel’s former ambassador to the U.N., he usually uses the high-profile annual event to forcefully press Israel’s worldview and confer with allies such as President Trump, with whom he had been scheduled to meet on the sidelines.
Trump -- who in the past has eagerly endorsed Netanyahu’s narrative of a warm personal friendship between the two leaders -- offered a coolly distancing observation when reporters asked him about the prime minister’s prospects.
“Our relationship is with Israel,” the president said, adding that the two had not spoken about the inconclusive vote result.
Moving forward, old enmities will almost certainly come back to haunt the prime minister. His ally-turned-nemesis Avigdor Lieberman, a former defense minister, has been cast in a kingmaking role after his secular-nationalist party gained strength. And an Arab-majority faction that Netanyahu demonized in the campaign, the Joint List, also performed strongly, on track to become the third-largest party in parliament.
Gantz has ruled out a partnership with Likud as long as Netanyahu is at the party’s helm and under a legal cloud.
It will fall to Israel’s President Reuven Rivlin, whose role is mainly ceremonial, to decide in coming days whether to give Gantz or Netanyahu the first crack at forming a government. After similarly deadlocked results in April, Netanyahu was given the chance to try first, but was unable to cobble together a majority in the 120-seat Knesset, or parliament.
Rather than give Gantz a chance to try, Netanyahu dissolved parliament and triggered Tuesday’s vote.
This time, though, Rivlin has made it clear he is determined to avoid a third election. Even the two national votes that have taken place this year marked a first for Israel.
Addressing supporters early Wednesday, a grim-looking Netanyahu did not concede defeat. He vowed to push for a government that excludes Arab parties, accusing them of seeking to “negate the existence of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state.”
No Arab party has ever sat in an Israeli coalition government, although individual Arab politicians have served in the Cabinet. The Joint List’s leader, Ayman Odeh, has suggested he might instead lead the opposition in the Knesset. That would mean he would receive the same intelligence briefings and military assessments as the prime minister — a bitter pill for Netanyahu’s backers to swallow.
The political uncertainty could spell even more delay in the rollout of a peace plan being put together by Trump’s son-in-law and advisor Jared Kushner. A Gantz-led government would be more likely to make at least some concessions to the Palestinians that Netanyahu has ruled out, although the two hold similar views on many security issues.
Trump was a less overt presence in this contest than in the campaign leading up to April’s vote. Prior to that vote, the White House bestowed some important political favors on the Israeli leader, particularly its recognition of Israel’s sovereignty over the Golan Heights, captured from Syria.
This time, the U.S. leader did not jump in with an endorsement of Netanyahu’s pre-vote pledge to annex the Jordan Valley, which makes up a large chunk of the West Bank. Palestinians say such a move would make it virtually impossible to realize their dream of statehood.
But Trump last week tweeted praise of a prospective U.S.-Israeli defense pact, drawing an enthusiastic response from the prime minister.
“Thank you my dear friend President @realDonaldTrump,” Netanyahu tweeted on Saturday. “The Jewish State has never had a greater friend in the White House.”
Special correspondent Tarnopolsky reported from Jerusalem and staff writer King from Washington.