Netanyahu’s future may hinge on rightist rival, Islamist in ballot stalemate

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Polls have closed in Israel in its fourth election in just two years. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu hopes the vaccine rollout will help him politically, despite bribery and abuse of power charges that have earned him the title of ‘Crime Minister’

JERUSALEM (REUTERS) - Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's prospects for another term looked uncertain on Wednesday (March 24_ after partial results from Israel's fourth national election in two years projected no clear path to victory.

Though an official result was still hours - or days - away, with about 88 per cent of votes counted, it appeared that Netanyahu, leader of the right-wing Likud, would have to cobble together an unlikely coalition that might include Jewish ultra-Orthodox, ultra-nationalist and Arab parties to secure another term.

Barring any surprises from the remaining uncounted votes, the electoral landscape raised the likelihood of yet another national ballot.

Tuesday's vote followed three other inconclusive elections in which neither Netanyahu, 71, nor his centre-left opponents won a majority in the 120-seat parliament.

Likud is projected to emerge as the largest party with 30 seats, fewer than its current 36. The opposition centrist party Yesh Atid, headed by Mr Yair Lapid, trailed with 18 seats. Mr Lapid, 57, had hoped there would be enough parties in the anti- Netanyahu bloc to oust the veteran leader, in power since 2009.

Netanyahu claimed a "huge victory" in the election and said he hoped to form a "stable right-wing government".

Israel's shekel was flat against the dollar and stocks slipped in Wednesday trade.

It usually falls on the biggest party to try to form a government, and that could take weeks of back-room dealings.

Netanyahu may have to woo Jewish religious allies as well as far-rightists and possibly even the the United Arab List (UAL), a conservative Islamist party forecast to win five seats under the partial results.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife Sara cast their ballots at a polling station in Jerusalem on March 23, 2021. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

UAL leader Mansour Abbas, 46, has advocated working with Netanyahu to address the needs of Israel's 21 per cent Arab minority - a position rejected by most Arabs, and which forced Abbas' faction to split from a coalition of Arab parties ahead of the vote.

"We are not in anyone's pocket. We are prepared to engage with both sides ( Netanyahu and Lapid)," Mr Abbas told Tel Aviv radio station 103 FM. Israeli media reported that he had agreed to meet Mr Lapid later this week.

Another potential kingmaker is Mr Naftali Bennett, 48, a former defence minister who favours annexing parts of the Israeli-occupied West Bank. His hawkish Yamina party is projected to win seven seats. Bennett has yet to say he would back Netanyahu.

Should a hard-right government emerge, it would likely be at loggerheads with the Democratic administration of US President Joe Biden over issues such as Palestinian statehood and engagement by the United States with Israel's arch-enemy Iran over its nuclear programme.

An alliance with Netanyahu's opponents from the centre-left seemed to be a political stretch.

SPH Brightcove Video
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's prospects for another term looked uncertain on Wednesday after partial results from a national election projected no clear path to victory.

Netanyahu had campaigned on his leadership credentials based on a world-beating Covid-19 vaccination rollout that has enabled nearly 50 per cent of Israelis to receive two vaccine shots already.

But charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust, which Netanyahu has denied in an ongoing corruption trial, as well as economic hardships during three nationwide coronavirus lockdowns, have weighed on his popularity.

Mr Yohanan Plesner, president of the Israel Democracy Institute, a non-partisan think-tank, said exit polls showed the country remained divided and that a fifth national election remained a real option.

"At the same time, if Bennett joins his coalition, Netanyahu is closer than ever to a narrow government including the most extreme elements of Israeli society," Mr Plesner said.

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