Israelis have spoken and prefer Netanyahu, though hurdles remain on way to government

March 4, 2020 by Dov Lipman - JNS
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Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declared “a giant victory” on Monday night for the Likud Party and the Israeli right-wing. With 92 per cent of the votes counted, Likud won 36 seats and the right-wing/religious bloc 59 seats.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu after meeting with the heads of parties in the Knesset one day after Likud receives the most votes in three rounds of Israeli general elections, allowing him to try and form a new government, March 3, 2020. Photo by Yonatan Sindel/Flash90.

Netanyahu told a roaring crowd at the Likud victory celebration in Tel Aviv, “We stood against massive forces. They already eulogized us. Our opponents said the Netanyahu era is over. But together, we flipped the script. We turned lemons to lemonade.”

While Likud and their bloc are unlikely to have enough seats to form a majority governing coalition of 61, the rival Blue and White Party won just 32 seats and it’s only natural partner, Labor-Gesher-Meretz alliance, likely won a mere seven seats, leaving no path for Blue and White leader Benny Gantz to form a coalition.

Likud Tourism Minister Yariv Levin told JNS that “this is a festive day for the Israeli right-wing. In the face of constant bashing and shaming from the other side, the people have spoken. They have expressed their love for Netanyahu and rejected the hate.”

Levin acknowledged that “we have a lot of work in front of us for the nation and the state.”

Knesset member Sharren Haskel of the Likud echoed Levin’s celebratory words, telling JNS that “this was a great achievement for the Likud. We are still waiting for the final results, but we look forward to creating a government to advance the Likud agenda on security, diplomacy and the economy.”

Blue and White Knesset member and former Likud Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon, however, took issue with the euphoria in the Likud camp. He told JNS that “the indicted Netanyahu still cannot form a coalition of 61. We established Blue and White in order to set Israel back on the right track according to the values which we believe in, and we will continue to work hard to do so even if the path is long.”

Gantz himself spoke to a low-key small crowd of Blue and White activists and told them that “the results could be exactly the same in the political sense as they were a year ago; then we remained strong, united and committed to our path, and I tell you we will again remain strong, united and loyal to our path because it is the correct one.”

He was referring to the April 9 election results that had Netanyahu’s bloc with 60 seats and no path to get to 61. The difference this time, however, is the large number of seats that Likud won, in addition to the significant gap between Likud’s mandates and those of Blue and White, as opposed to the 35-35 tie back in April.

Netanyahu’s bloc is set to include the ultra-Orthodox parties, which did well, with exit polls showing Shas winning 10 seats and United Torah Judaism with seven seats. Shas Knesset member Yaakov Margi told JNS that the election was “a victory for Shas, which ran a clean and dignified campaign, and was not negative against other parties. This approach worked.  Those who ran negative campaigns were not successful. The bottom line is that a majority of Israel wants a right-government and a country that is Jewish in nature.”

The right-wing bloc will also include Yamina, which won six seats. Yamina leader and current Defense Minister Naftali Bennett declared that “with God’s help, a government that will establish Israeli sovereignty [over the West Bank] has been established.”

Yamina’s Knesset members have made it clear that they intend to urge Netanyahu to move forward with a strong right-wing security and diplomatic agenda.

Joint Arab List: ‘We did our part. They failed.’

Aside from Likud’s strong showing, the Joint Arab List also came away with solid results, likely winning 15 seats.

Knesset member Ahman Tibi of the Joint List called this “a major success” and referred to it as their “biggest election success in decades.” At the same time, he said that the country is now facing “a dark future” with Netanyahu continuing at the helm.

Joint List leader Ayman Odeh praised his party’s showing, and went on to blame Blue and White for not toppling Netanyahu. “We did our part. They failed,” he said.

Labor and Meretz, two left-wing parties that ran together, won a disappointing seven seats. Labor Party chairman Amir Peretz blamed Blue and White for focusing on taking away their voters during the last few days of the campaign, referring to their tactic as “cannibalism.”

At the same time, Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu Party also likely won seven seats. While Lieberman is right-wing on security issues, which would seem to make him the natural partner to join with Netanyahu and establish a government, he continues to refuse to do so as he has done in the previous election rounds.

“We won’t move a millimetre from what we promised our voters,” Lieberman told his supporters, making it clear that he won’t join a Netanyahu-led government that includes the ultra-Orthodox parties, which he disagrees with on matters of religion and state.

Judicial matters could complicate coalition-building

Now Netanyahu must find a way to bring at least two more Knesset members from other parties to join his coalition. Some Knesset members in Blue and White are suggesting that the party should join a Netanyahu-led unity government, and some more right-wing Blue and White Knesset members have been talking about joining the right-wing/religious coalition. Another possible defector is Knesset member Orly Levy-Abekasis, who heads the Gesher faction of the Labor-Gesher-Meretz alliance.

Netanyahu faces another hurdle on the way towards forming a government: the Israeli judicial system. While half of the country has clearly stated that they want him to continue to serve in the top job despite the fact that he goes on trial March 17 for bribery, fraud and breach of trust charges, there has already been an appeal to the Supreme Court to stop him from being given the mandate to form a government.

The court refused to hear arguments and issue a ruling on this issue in January, when such an appeal was made, saying it was premature at that time. Now the issue will be raised. While Israeli law allows a prime minister to continue serving while under indictment, it is less clear about whether a candidate can be given the task of trying to form a government while facing a trial.

Final results may not be announced until next Monday, as extra precautions were put into place to prevent fraud and to assure the counting a few thousand votes from Israelis currently in quarantine because of the coronavirus.

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