Israel faces potential deadlock in a closely contested vote

Published September 16, 2019, 3:53 PM

by Francine Ciasico

By the Associated Press 

JERUSALEM — Israel is headed toward an unprecedented repeat election on Tuesday with no guarantee that the do-over vote will produce a more decisive result than the inconclusive one last April.

In this Sunday, Sept. 8, 2019 file photo, a worker hangs an election campaign billboard of the Likud party showing US President Donald Trump, left, and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Tel Aviv. Israel is heading to an unprecedented repeat election next week with no guarantee that the do-over vote will produce a more decisive result than an inconclusive one last April. Hebrew on the billboard reads "Netanyahu, another league." (AP Photo/Oded Balilty, File / MANILA BULLETIN)
In this Sunday, Sept. 8, 2019 file photo, a worker hangs an election campaign billboard of the Likud party showing US President Donald Trump, left, and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Tel Aviv. Israel is heading to an unprecedented repeat election next week with no guarantee that the do-over vote will produce a more decisive result than an inconclusive one last April. Hebrew on the billboard reads “Netanyahu, another league.” (AP Photo/Oded Balilty, File / MANILA BULLETIN)

The Israeli electorate is deeply divided along religious, ethnic and ideological lines and the fragmented parliamentary system makes coalition-building a tricky business.

In April, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu seemed to have a clear path to power with his right-wing Likud and its traditional Jewish ultra-Orthodox and nationalist allies securing a majority in the 120-seat parliament.

But when Avigdor Lieberman’s hard-line Yisrael Beitenu party objected to the religious parties’ excessive influence, Netanyahu was left with just 60 supporters — one short of a majority. Instead of allowing an alternative candidate a chance to form a government, he dissolved parliament and called another snap election.

Polls show Netanyahu’s Likud and his main challenger, the centrist Blue and White, in a head-to-head tight race. Both parties could struggle to form a majority coalition with their smaller allies.

A unity government between the two biggest parties may be the most reasonable way out of the gridlock, but Blue and White has vowed not to serve under Netanyahu because of his likely indictment on corruption charges.

Netanyahu, the longest serving leader in Israeli history, is unlikely to agree to sit in a government headed by anyone else.

Here’s a look at the various scenarios that could play out after the Sept. 17 vote:

Netanyahu gets to 61

Netanyahu has been campaigning furiously to boost support for his ruling Likud party so he can reach his stated goal of establishing a right-wing, nationalist government — without Lieberman.

He appears to be able to count on the support of two ultra-Orthodox parties and the newly unified pro-settler Yamina party.

The fringe, ultranationalist Jewish Power faction, led by followers of the late rabbi Meir Kahane, who advocated expelling Arabs from Israel and creating a Jewish theocracy, is polling at the minimum threshold for entering parliament. If it pushes through, it could put Netanyahu over the top and give him the reins once again.

Such a government would be the most nationalist in Israeli history and Netanyahu would likely require its members to support legislation granting him immunity from looming corruption charges. But Netanyahu has previously been wary of leading governments with slim majorities since it would leave him open to extortion from individual lawmakers.

Blue and white cobbles together a ‘blocking majority’

Opposition leader Benny Gantz has a far tougher path to the premiership.

Though his Blue and White party tied Likud with 35 seats in the April vote, and they are predicted to tie once again, the center-left bloc is far more splintered.

Its more dovish parties aren’t likely to cooperate with Lieberman, and Arab parties have never sat in government and typically refrain from endorsing a candidate for prime minister.

Gantz’s best hope may be to edge Likud on election day, and then cobble together an informal alliance of parties, called a “blocking majority,” that oppose Netanyahu.

Gantz would then have to get creative by either convincing Likud to dump Netanyahu, persuading some Likud members to defect or concoct other seemingly impossible political marriages, such as an alliance with Arab parties.

 
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