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Israel's Netanyahu on course to win most seats, but may be short of majority

Posted March 3, 2020 7:53 a.m. EST

— Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu looks set to come out top in Israel's general election, according to projections made by the country's three main television stations early Tuesday, with 90% of votes counted.

But his hopes of a straightforward path towards forming a governing majority in parliament look set to be dashed, with all three TV stations forecasting his preferred "bloc" of parties winning 59 seats -- two seats short of an overall majority.

Addressing Likud supporters in the early hours at the party's election headquarters in Tel Aviv, Netanyahu declared victory "against all the odds," saying he had withstood tremendous forces trying to unseat him. "People said the Netanyahu era was over," he declared before adding that voters trusted him "because we brought them the best decade in the history of Israel."

Netanyahu said he would convene later on Tuesday with the other right-wing and religious parties to discuss forming a "strong, national government for the state of Israel."

Projections from the TV channels suggest the momentum Netanyahu appeared to have built in the last week of the campaign carried over into polling day.

All three channels put his Likud on 36 seats, four ahead of the Blue and White party of Benny Gantz, projected to win 32 seats.

Gantz refused to accept defeat when he appeared before his party's supporters at their Tel Aviv headquarters but admitted he shared their feeling of disappointment and pain. "This is not the result we wanted and not the result that will put Israel back on the right track," he said.

He also hit out at his opponents' election tactics, describing the election campaign as the most difficult in the history of Israel, saying he and his party had been the victims of lies and smears. "They thought I would break under the pressure, but I did not, and I will not," he said.

Earlier Monday, Israel's President Reuven Rivlin castigated lawmakers for running what he called an "awful and grubby election campaign" as well as for their inability to negotiate a new government after two elections last year. "We don't deserve this never-ending instability. We deserve a government that works for us," Rivlin said.

Twenty-nine parties contested the election. It now seems certain that just eight will make it over the 3.25% threshold required to win representation in the 120-seat Knesset.

The Joint List of Arab parties is projected to come a strong third behind Likud and Blue and White, winning 15 seats. The Joint List's strong showing is seen as an indication of the level of opposition among Israel's Arab communities -- which make up about 20% of the population -- to President Donald Trump's Middle East peace plan, unveiled in late January. List leader Ayman Odeh hailed his party's performance as the best result ever for Arab parties in Israeli elections.

The two main religious parties representing Israel's ultra-Orthodox population are projected to win between 17 seats between them, making them an influential part of any Netanyahu bloc. Another right-wing party, the hardline Yamina, led by Defense Minister Naftali Bennett is projected to win just six seats.

A center-left alliance of three parties, including Labor, which was once the dominant force in Israeli politics, also appears to have underperformed, on course for just seven seats in the new parliament.

Finally, the other party on track to return to parliament is Yisrael Beiteinu, led by Avigdor Liberman, once a close ally of Netanyahu, but now one of his fiercest critics. His party is projected to win just seven seats, but with the polls now suggesting a close finish, he could still play a kingmaker role.

Following the last election in September, both Netanyahu and Gantz were given the chance to try to form a government but neither man was successful in building a coalition with a 61-seat majority. Gantz refused point-blank to sit in a government with Netanyahu due to the charges against the Prime Minister, while Netanyahu refused to go second in any rotating prime ministership with Gantz.

This time Netanyahu might try to entice a couple of opposition lawmakers to join a right-wing and religious coalition and give him an overall majority.

He is seeking his fifth term as Israel's prime minister -- he is already the country's longest-ever serving leader, having surpassed David Ben-Gurion's 4,875 days in office last summer.

Even though Netanyahu has been under criminal investigation for several years, it was only in January that he was formally indicted on charges of bribery and fraud and breach of trust. He denies the accusations, and there was little to suggest during the campaign the indictments had a significant impact on voters. Those Israelis who support him fully accept his complaints that the indictments are a witch hunt pursued by a liberal elite. And those Israelis who dislike the Prime Minister have been firm in that belief for many years now.

Most of the votes are expected to have been counted by the end of Tuesday, leaving just soldiers votes and Israelis voting overseas remaining. Final certified results are likely still some days away.

At some point in the coming week, most likely next Sunday, President Rivlin will summon all those party leaders who have achieved representation in parliament to consult with him over who should get first shot at building a coalition.

The President will then formally ask one of the leaders to start coalition talks -- on all but one occasion it has been the leader of the largest party -- and they will then have a maximum of six weeks to agree on the shape of the next government.

But as events have shown, not once but twice in the last year, that could prove very difficult, and it remains possible there could still be a fourth general election in late summer.

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