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Israel Rivals Set to Slug It Out in the Second Election This Year

By Bloomberg 17 September 2019
Caption
A billboards promoting Benny Gantz in Central Tel Aviv a day before the elections on Sep 16, 2019 Tel Aviv, Israel Photographer Kobi Wolf for Bloomberg

Israel went to the polls for Tuesday’s election do-over a fiercely divided nation, with no definitive sign whether Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will retain his grip on power.

While the latest opinion surveys gave Netanyahu a bump, they still suggest he’ll struggle to put together a parliamentary majority without former Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman, a onetime ally who refused to join his government following the April 9 election.

Liberman, long seen as the kingmaker in this election, has slipped in recent polls, and sentiment could still shift further in the premier’s favor. If it turns out that Netanyahu does need his fickle friend, the real drama will come as the Israeli leader tries to peel off lawmakers from the opposing camp — or be forced out if he fails.

“It could end with another stalemate, and several weeks during which the president taps someone to form a government and he runs into obstacles,” said Yoram Meital, a political scientist at Ben-Gurion University. “It’s a very polarized political landscape, and it’s too early to predict how it will end.”

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The Netanyahu-led bloc will land about 58 seats in the 120-member Knesset, final polls predicted, with Liberman’s Yisrael Beitenu capturing eight, up from five in April but down from a high of 11. The grouping led by the premier’s chief rival, former military chief Benny Gantz, is set to secure about 53 seats, they indicated. According to pollster Smith Consulting, about 12% of respondents hadn’t decided how to vote.

Turnout by midday was up slightly from the April election, with 27% of eligible voters having cast their ballots. Polls close at 10 p.m. local time.

Netanyahu’s uncertain prospects come at a bad time for him personally, as he tries to head off possible corruption charges, and for his plans to quash Iranian and Palestinian ambitions.

Netanyahu Takes Israel to Election Unknown on Coalition Fail

Netanyahu’s campaign has been about survival. He’s claimed, without evidence, that opponents are trying to steal the election through voter fraud, and revived the anti-Arab messages that won him support in the past. He’s made a bid for nationalist votes by promising to annex parts of the West Bank, a move Israel has shunned for more than 50 years.

Staying in power could be crucial to Netanyahu’s efforts to stay out of court — and possibly jail. He entered the race weakened by what he says are baseless graft allegations cooked up by left-wing opponents. Before coalition talks broke down, he was trying to push through new legislation granting him immunity from prosecution while in office.

The economy rarely strayed into the campaign given solid growth. But the next government will have to decide what mix of tax hikes or spending cuts is needed to bridge a widening fiscal deficit.

The political uncertainty has dovetailed with renewed volatility along Israel’s northern frontier with Lebanon and Syria, and at its southern boundary with the Hamas-run Gaza Strip. Against this backdrop, the Trump administration plans to release its Middle East peace proposal just days after Israel’s election, Netanyahu said last week.

The country’s elections-related paralysis has already delayed presentation of the plan’s political component, which ran into further headwinds with the resignation of its chief architect, Jason Greenblatt. The proposal already faced an uphill struggle, given a quarter-century of failed negotiations and the Palestinians’ boycott of President Donald Trump’s administration over its endorsement of Israeli positions on the conflict.

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While Israel’s security challenges have built in recent weeks in confrontations with Iran-backed militants in Gaza, Lebanon and Syria, Netanyahu has been worried by Trump’s declared willingness to sit down with his Iranian counterpart, Hassan Rouhani.

Trump’s campaign to bring Iran to its knees by clobbering it with sanctions has been the answer to Netanyahu’s dreams of severely restricting Iran’s nuclear and defense programs. Any retreat would deal Israeli policy a stinging blow, though a drone attack Saturday on the Saudi oil industry that the U.S. blamed on Tehran might scuttle any planned gestures.

First Crack
As long as Netanyahu wins more support in parliament, analysts expect him to get first crack at piecing together a coalition, even if Gantz’s Blue and White on its own has a slight edge over the premier’s Likud party.

Liberman’s Yisrael Beitenu emerged stronger from his showdown with Netanyahu over ultra-Orthodox privileges, and polls gave him eight parliamentary seats. That’s down from a projected high of 11, but three more than his current five. At the moment, he’s unaligned with either big bloc and is pushing for a unity government linking his party, Likud and Blue and White.

Netanyahu says he won’t resign if coalition talks flop again. But Likud leaders might not give him another chance.

“If he doesn’t succeed, the party will oust him,” predicted Meital, the Ben-Gurion University political scientist.

–With assistance from Alisa Odenheimer.

To contact the reporter on this story:
Amy Teibel in Jerusalem at [email protected]

To contact the editors responsible for this story:
Lin Noueihed at [email protected];
Benjamin Harvey at [email protected]
Mark Williams, Amy Teibel

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