Netanyahu’s party leads but majority uncertain after Israel vote

ISRAEL (AFP) — Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s party was on track to win the most seats in Israel’s election yesterday, the fourth in less than two years, but he was not guaranteed to secure a majority.

The projections, based on exit polls that are subject to change, suggest Netanyahu’s only path to a viable right-wing coalition requires a deal with his estranged former protege Naftali Bennett, who has not ruled out joining a bloc opposed to the premier.

In power for 12 straight years, Netanyahu is Israel’s longest-serving premier and the first to be indicted in office after being formally charged last year with corruption, an allegation he denies.

The 71-year-old campaigned on his leadership of Israel’s world-beating coronavirus vaccination campaign and historic deals he clinched to normalise ties with four Arab states.

While he described the projected results as a “huge win for the right” and his Likud party, he may still fall short of the governing majority that has eluded him for years.

Likud was projected to win 31 or 32 seats in Israel’s 120-member parliament. Counting his right-wing, religious allies, the surveys put his support in the 50s.

If those projections reflect the final result, a 61-seat majority could be possible for Netanyahu if he agrees terms with Bennett, a multi-millionaire religious nationalist.

But the main challenger, Yair Lapid of the centrist Yesh Atid party, claimed the anti-Netanyahu bloc had a path to a majority.

“As of this moment, Netanyahu doesn’t have 61 seats,” said Lapid, a former primetime news anchor.

“I began conducting talks with parts of the ‘change’ bloc this evening. We’ll do everything to form a sane government in Israel,” he said, addressing a rally of his supporters.

Netanyahu and Bennett were once close and maintain hawkish ideological links, but their relationship has grown strained in recent years.

“The power you gave me, I will use only according to one guideline: what is good for Israel,” Bennett told supporters at a rally after the results were announced.

Netanyahu has said he will not block his corruption trial and looks forward to being exonerated, but critics suspect that if he forms a majority, he may seek parliamentary action to delay or end the process.

A Netanyahu coalition may require alignment with a new far-right extremist alliance called Religious Zionism, which is projected to win between six and seven seats.

That means the bloc will send to Parliament Itamar Ben-Gvir, who has voiced admiration for the mass murderer of 29 Palestinian worshippers in Hebron in 1994, Baruch Goldstein.

“If Bennett joins his coalition, Netanyahu is closer than ever to a narrow Government, including the most extreme elements of Israeli society,” Yohanan Plesner, president of the Israel Democracy Institute think tank, said after the provisional results were released.

Bennett has vowed not to join a government headed by Lapid, whose party is projected to be the second largest with 16-18 seats.

Tuesday’s vote was forced on Israelis after Netanyahu triggered the collapse of a unity Government he had formed last year with former military chief Benny Gantz, his main challenger in three previous, inconclusive elections.

Gantz is projected to win seven or eight seats in yesterday’s election, widely seen as punishment by supporters for joining Netanyahu.

The outgoing defence minister said he only did so to give Israel stability amid the coronavirus pandemic.

But their agreement called for Netanyahu to hand power to the centrist Gantz after 18 months, something observers correctly predicted he would never do.

If Netanyahu can’t reach a deal with Bennett and his opponents cannot unite a fifth election is possible.

“Starting tomorrow (today), I’ll do my best to unite the pro-change block,” Gantz said after the projections were announced.

“And if we are forced to face a fifth round of elections, I will vigilantly protect our democracy, rule of law and security. Because Israel comes first.”

Election day saw Palestinian militants fire a rocket from Gaza at Beersheba a short while after Netanyahu visited the southern city.

The army said “a projectile was fired from the Gaza Strip into Israeli territory,” with a spokeswoman saying a rocket hit an open field, in the first such attack since January.

There were no immediate reports of damage or injuries.

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