(CNSNews.com) – As has become customary in Israel, voters have gone to the polls to choose a government but may have to wait for days or even weeks to see what it looks like – and who will lead it.
After the country’s second election in five months, veteran Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s Likud and the opposition Blue and White parties were neck-and-neck as official results were coming in on Wednesday, with neither appearing to have a clear route to victory.
That’s because, as was never in doubt, neither of the two parties are anywhere close to getting the 61 seats needed in the 120-member Knesset to govern alone. With results still coming in, both appear set to win around 32 seats each. Earlier exit polls had placed the Likud marginally behind.
So, as usual in Israeli politics, their leaders – Netanyahu and former Israel Defense Forces chief of staff Benny Gantz – will each examine their chances of cobbling together a viable coalition.
Netanyahu’s inability to do so after elections last April led to Tuesday’s replay.
Both he and Gantz predicted overnight that they would be the one to form the next government.
Ganz told supporters at his party’s Tel Aviv headquarters he had already spoken to some potential coalition partners on the left and intended to speak to “everyone” in a bid to build a national unity government.
But Netanyahu, who also spoke in Tel Aviv, said that “Israel needs a strong, stable and Zionist government,” one that does not depend on Arab anti-Zionist parties that deny Israel’s very existence as a Jewish and democratic state, and that glorify terrorists who murder Israeli soldiers and citizens.
“The State of Israel is at a historical juncture ahead of great security and diplomatic challenges and opportunities,” he said, pointing to President Trump’s Mideast peace efforts and the threats posed by Iran.
Despite his optimism, the country’s longest-serving prime minister, who is seeking a fifth term, looks vulnerable, since the party offering the most obvious route to a majority is led by a former ally who is now a rival.
Avigdor Lieberman, a former foreign and defense minister in Netanyahu-led governments, looks set Wednesday to hold the balance of power, with his secular nationalist Yisrael Beiteinu (“Israel our Home”) on track to take nine seats.
Of the remaining parties, those likely to go with Netanyahu in a center-right bloc include the ultra-Orthodox Shas (with an estimated nine seats, based on incomplete official results and exit polls), United Torah Judaism (eight), and former Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked’s right-wing Yamina (seven).
Likely coalition partners for Gantz’ Blue and White, on the other hand, are the Israeli Arab Joint List (which exit polls gave 12 seats although official results thus far do not bear that out), center-left Labor-Gesher (six), and left-wing Democratic Union (five).
Neither Netanyahu nor Gantz, therefore, look able to build a majority coalition without turning to Yisrael Beiteinu. This makes Lieberman, who champions secular issues like commerce and public transport on the Jewish Sabbath, the potential “kingmaker,” and not for the first time.
Lieberman has already made clear he envisages a broad national unity coalition comprising his party, Blue and White, and Likud. But as Gantz has said he won’t join a coalition featuring Netanyahu, Lieberman’s envisaged three-way coalition would only work if Netanyahu stands down.
Israelis, and the many Americans interested in the nation’s most important ally in the Middle East, could have a long wait.