Benjamin Netanyahu’s political survival looked to be in the hands of his estranged former defence minister yesterday after initial election results showed he won fewer seats than his centrist rival and his Right-wing allies failed to gain an overall majority.
Israel’s second election in six months delivered another indecisive result, with Mr Netanyahu’s Likud party winning 31 seats compared to the 32 seats won by Blue & White, the centrist coalition led by former general Benny Gantz.
Both sides fell short of the 61 seats needed for a majority. Mr Netanyahu and his Right-wing won 55 seats. Blue & White and the Left-wing parties, along with the party representing Israel’s Arab minority, won 56.
The result is likely to mean weeks of intense post-election negotiations as Mr Netanyahu and Mr Gantz compete to be given the chance to form a government and then to try to cobble together a majority.
They will be jostling for the support of Avigdor Lieberman, Mr Netanyahu’s former defence minister, who is positioned to be a kingmaker. His secular nationalist Yisrael Beiteinu party won nine seats and holds the balance of power between the two blocs in the divided parliament.
Mr Lieberman is demanding “a broad unity government” made up of Blue & White, Likud and his own Yisrael Beiteinu party. Mr Gantz says he is seeking the same thing but Mr Lieberman is so far being coy about who he will support.
In a statement, Mr Lieberman said that the two main leaders must agree to his demands for a unity government if they seek his support. “If Netanyahu and Gantz won’t declare publicly that this is also their goal, they shouldn’t bother to call me,” he said.
The 61-year-old has served in Mr Netanyahu’s government several times in the past but the two men fell out dramatically in 2018 after Mr Lieberman, then at the defence ministry, resigned and accused the prime minister of being weak against Hamas.
In the coming days Israel’s president, Reuven Rivlin, will survey party leaders to see whether there is more support for Mr Gantz or Mr Netanyahu. The man with the most backing is likely to be given first chance to form a government.
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The prime minister attempted an initial show of strength by announcing that all 55 Right-wing MPs would join together in a single faction under his leadership for the purpose of coalition negotiations.
“We decided unanimously that we are going together to negotiate in order to form a government that I will lead,” Mr Netanyahu said.
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The parliamentary math appears to show that a unity government is the only way forward but a key unresolved question is what role Mr Netanyahu would play in such a government.
Mr Gantz has said he wants a unity coalition but that Mr Netanyahu, who is facing criminal corruption charges, must first resign and be replaced by a new Likud leader. “The polarisation and antagonism are behind us and unity and reconciliation lie before us,” Mr Gantz said.
Senior Likud figures insisted on Wednesday they would not abandon Mr Netanyahu, who has led the party for 20 years. "We will never accept people dictating who our leaders are,” Nir Barkat, a Likud MP, told The Telegraph.
“Netanyahu was elected leader of the Likud and it’s in our DNA to support that leader, especially in hard times.”
Mr Netanyahu hinted at possible fears of an internal party coup in a brief election night speech, delivered with a painfully hoarse voice after weeks of campaigning. He thanked his ministers and urged them to “stand united, together in the tasks ahead”.
He later cancelled plans to travel to New York next week for the UN General so he could deal with the crisis facing his premiership at home.
If Blue & White and Likud are unable to reach a deal on a unity government, and neither side can form a majority on their own, it is possible that Israel will go crashing into a third election in a year.