Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s grip on power was hanging in the balance Wednesday after local TV channels projected him trailing his centrist rival Benny Gantz by just one seat, following a re-run general election.
Both Netanyahu and Gantz have vowed they can form a government, even though projected results give neither man a majority in the new Parliament.
Israeli politics now appears all-but-deadlocked and destined for complex negotiations between the two main parties and the smaller parties over possible coalition arrangements.
Addressing his Blue and White party supporters in Tel Aviv a few hours after the polls closed, Gantz struck a tone of measured optimism, saying that an era of “polarization and antagonism” now lay in the past with “unity and reconciliation” being the way forward.
Gantz said contacts with other parties to build what he described as a “broad unity government” had already started.
“I intend to talk to everybody, starting tonight,” he said.
Netanyahu meanwhile, was hoarse as he addressed his Likud Party supporters, neither claiming victory nor conceding defeat.
“Israel needs a strong, stable, Zionist government committed to Israel as a national state for the Jewish people,” he said.
By Wednesday, all three of Israel’s three main TV news channels were projecting Gantz’s Blue and White winning 32 seats, to 31 seats for Netanyahu’s Likud, in the 120-seat Parliament.
By midday Wednesday well over half the votes had been counted, though official, certified, results are not expected for a few days.
What happens next?
All the leaders of parties which have secured representation in the Parliament are expected to begin consultations with Israel’s President Reuven Rivlin beginning Sunday. When that process is complete, usually after a few days, the President appoints the leader he believes has the best chance of success, to begin talks to form a coalition government.
If that turned out to be Netanyahu, then negotiations would likely need to take account of the corruption allegations swirling around him. A final pre-indictment hearing is scheduled for the first week of October. Netanyahu has denied all of the accusations.
But if the projected deadlock is borne out in the final results then neither Netanyahu nor Gantz will have a clear path to a coalition. This means the next few weeks, or even months, look set to be marked by intense, behind-the-scenes, political wrangling.
The former Defense Minister, Avigdor Liberman, leader of the Yisrael Beiteinu party – which TV channels projected Wednesday to come fourth with nine seats – could play a key role in coalition negotiations.
Ever since he dashed Netanyahu’s hopes of forming a right-wing and religious coalition after April’s election, Liberman has said he wants to see a national unity government made up of his own party, sitting alongside Likud and Blue and White.
Such a government would easily have a working majority in Parliament. But for it to happen, it would also need a change of position from Blue and White, which has said it will not sit in a government led by Netanyahu.