Israeli president likely to choose Netanyahu to form gov’t during week of his corruption trial

Despite a victory for Likud over rivals in the Blue and White party, the prime minister’s future remained uncertain on Tuesday evening as the final votes were counted.

By Associated Press

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s political future remained up in the air Tuesday as preliminary results and exit polls from Israel’s third election in under a year indicated the embattled leader would fall short of securing the parliamentary majority needed to form a new government.

Netanyahu, set to go on trial on corruption charges in two weeks, claimed victory after exit polls projected his Likud party as the largest faction in parliament in Monday’s election. But while exit polls and preliminary results appeared to give him a boost, they also signaled that a year-long political deadlock is far from over.

With 93% of the votes counted, preliminary official results showed that the Likud and its allies in the religious Zionist and right-wing camps had 59 of 120 seats in parliament, two seats short of the hoped-for majority. Exit polls on Israeli TV stations also indicated the Likud-led bloc would capture 59 seats.

Under Israeli law, the president is responsible for designating a prime minister, choosing the candidate deemed to have the best chance of forming a coalition after several days of consultations with the various political parties.

His choice is usually, but not always, the leader of the largest party. President Reuven Rivlin’s office said he would begin the consultation process on March 10, meaning his decision on a prime minister-designate could come just as Netanyahu’s trial is beginning.

By way of background, nothing under Israeli law prevents the president from tapping Netanyahu to form government.

Final results were expected Wednesday after officials counted several hundred thousand votes cast by Israeli soldiers and some 4,000 ballots cast by Israelis confined to home quarantine after possible exposure to the coronavirus.

Political deadlock

Even if Netanyahu falls short of a majority, he appears to hold the upper hand as rival political camps try to end the deadlock that has paralyzed the political system for over a year.

According to the preliminary results and exit polls, Likud was single-handedly projected to win 35 to 36 seats, placing it well ahead of the 32 seats projected to go to the rival Blue and White party, led by his main challenger, former military chief Benny Gantz.

Although Netanyahu’s opponents together were projected to hold a 61-seat majority, they are deeply divided. They include a predominantly Arab party and a secular Zionist faction that has ruled out any alliance with Arab politicians, making it unlikely they will unite.

Whether Netanyahu could use this advantage to form a new government remains to be seen.

Moving quickly, Netanyahu met Tuesday with his smaller allies, with Likud announcing the various parties agreed to remain together as an alliance, but also left the door open to other partners.

Another path would be for Likud and Blue and White to put aside their differences and form a broad unity government. Together, they are projected to control a solid majority.

On the campaign trail, Gantz repeatedly ruled out a unity government led by Netanyahu, saying the prime minister is unfit to rule at a time when he is going on trial. Netanyahu insists he head any unity pact.

Gantz and other anti-Netanyahu forces could still eke out a narrow “blocking majority” and force yet another election. But a weary public is largely against that option.

Blue and White officials met late Tuesday to discuss their options. Afterward, Gantz said they are still waiting for final results and they will “do everything that the results and the law allow to change the government.”

Netanyahu is eager to form a government before his trial begins March 17.

He has been charged with fraud, breach of trust and accepting bribes. While Netanyahu denies wrongdoing, the timing of the trial could complicate the formation of the next government.

The Supreme Court also is expected to be asked to look at the question of whether an indicted politician is even allowed to form a coalition government, adding another potential obstacle to the process.

Addressing his supporters early Tuesday, Netanyahu declared a “huge victory” and vowed to press ahead with annexing large parts of Judea and Samaria.

Regardless of the final outcome, the election seemed to mark a devastating setback for Gantz’s Blue and White party and its allies on the center-left, who had grand ambitions to topple Netanyahu after more than a decade in power.

Maverick politician Avigdor Lieberman, whose party is projected to win seven seats, once again looms as a key player.

Speaking Tuesday, he repeated his campaign pledge that there won’t be a fourth election but gave no indication which side he would support.