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Netanyahu short of majority amid Israeli vote deadlock

Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu
Laurie Kellerman, AP

Uncertainty hovers over the outcome of Israel’s parliamentary election, with both prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu and political rivals apparently lacking a clear path to a governing coalition.

Deadlock in the 120-seat parliament is a real possibility a day after the election, which had been dominated by Mr Netanyahu’s polarising leadership.

With about 87.5% of the vote counted by Wednesday morning, Mr Netanyahu’s Likud party and its ultra-Orthodox and far-right allies fell short of a 61-seat majority – even if the Yamina party of Mr Netanyahu’s ally-turned-critic Naftali Bennett were to join a Netanyahu-led government.

Mr Bennett has refused to endorse either side.

At the same time, a small Arab party has emerged as a potential kingmaker after the latest count indicated it would cross the threshold to get into parliament.

Like Mr Bennett, the head of the Ra’am party, Mansour Abbas, has not ruled out joining either camp.

A fifth election also remains an option if neither camp can form a coalition.

In that case, Mr Netanyahu would remain a caretaker prime minister heading for a corruption trial and a confrontation with US president Joe Biden over Iran.

The final tally of the votes cast at regular polling stations is expected to be announced later on Wednesday.

But even then, much could still change under Israel’s whipsaw politics.

The elections commission is still counting about 450,000 ballots from voters who cast them outside their home polling place.

The initial results showed the country remains as deeply divided as ever, with an array of small sectarian parties dominating the parliament.

The results also signalled a continuing shift of the Israeli electorate toward the right wing, which supports West Bank settlements and opposes concessions in peace talks with the Palestinians.

That trend was highlighted by the strong showing of an ultra-nationalist anti-Arab religious party.

After three previous inconclusive elections, Mr Netanyahu had been hoping for a decisive victory that would allow him to form a government with his traditional ultra-Orthodox and hard-line nationalist allies and seek immunity from corruption charges.

In an address to supporters early on Wednesday, a subdued Mr Netanyahu boasted of a “great achievement” but stopped short of declaring victory.

Instead, he appeared to reach out to his opponents and called for formation of a “stable government” that would avoid another election.

“We must not under any circumstances drag the state of Israel to new elections, to a fifth election,” he said. “We must form a stable government now.”

Mr Bennett could play an outsized role. He shares Netanyahu’s hard-line nationalist ideology and would seem to be more likely to ultimately join the prime minister. But Mr Bennett has not ruled out joining forces with Mr Netanyahu’s opponents.

During the campaign, Mr Netanyahu emphasised Israel’s highly successful coronavirus vaccination drive.

He moved aggressively to secure enough vaccines for Israel’s 9.3 million people, and in three months the country has inoculated some 80% of its adult population. That has enabled the government to open restaurants, stores and the airport just in time for election day.

He also tried to portray himself as a global statesman, pointing to the four diplomatic accords he reached with Arab countries last year. Those agreements were brokered by his close ally, former US president Donald Trump.

But Mr Netanyahu’s opponents say the prime minister bungled many other aspects of the pandemic, particularly by allowing his ultra-Orthodox allies to ignore lockdown rules and fuel a high infection rate for much of the year.

More than 6,000 Israelis have died from Covid-19, and the economy continues to struggle with double-digit unemployment.

They also point to Mr Netanyahu’s corruption trial, saying someone who is under indictment for serious crimes is not fit to lead the country.

He has been charged with fraud, breach of trust and accepting bribes in a series of scandals that he dismisses as a witch hunt by a hostile media and legal system.

The Biden administration has kept its distance, in marked contrast to Mr Trump’s administration. Mr Netanyahu has hardly mentioned the new American president, with whom he has clashed over how to rein in Iran’s nuclear capabilities.

After the election results come in, attention will turn to the country’s figurehead president, Reuven Rivlin.

He will hold a series of meetings with party leaders and then choose the one he believes has the best chance of forming a government as his prime minister-designate.

That could set off weeks of horse-trading.

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