Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife Sara address supporters in Tel Aviv, March 3 2020. Picture: GIL COHEN-MAGEN / AFP
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife Sara address supporters in Tel Aviv, March 3 2020. Picture: GIL COHEN-MAGEN / AFP

Tel Aviv — Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu appeared within striking distance of forming Israel’s next government, after plunging his country into a year-long political crisis while he manoeuvred to stay in power and postpone his corruption trial.

Recently indicted in three graft cases, Netanyahu had gambled on repeat elections to win a majority in parliament and possibly keep himself out of jail. In the third election in less than a year on Monday, the strategy seemed close to paying off.

With 97% of votes counted on Tuesday evening, Netanyahu’s Likud party and its religious and nationalist allies defeated the opposing camp led by former military chief Benny Gantz. The Netanyahu-led alliance stood to capture 59 of parliament’s 120 seats, following a four-seat gain by Likud, versus 54 for the general’s camp, according to Israel’s Channel 13.

The prime minister would need at least 60 seats to rule, and has already hinted he’d be able to strengthen his position with defectors from Gantz’s Blue and White. He met on Tuesday with leaders of other factions in his camp.

“Tonight delivered a tremendous victory,” Netanyahu told a cheering crowd waving Israeli and Likud flags  after exit polls showed his bloc in a stronger position. Some in the crowd chanted, “Mandelblit, go home,” a reference to attorney-general Avihai Mandelblit, who indicted the prime minister in November.

The Central Elections Committee said final results would be delayed until late afternoon Wednesday while it confirmed them and investigated any irregularities.

Stocks and the shekel opened strong on Tuesday, largely due to the global rally a day earlier, traders said. The benchmark TA-35 index surged as much as 2.8% and the currency rallied the most against the dollar since December.

With Netanyahu edging closer to forming a coalition, the Movement for Quality in Government petitioned the High Court of Justice on Tuesday to rule on whether someone charged with serious crimes of the kind Netanyahu faces can serve as prime minister. Netanyahu has been indicted in three cases, charged with bribery and fraud. The petition argues that under these circumstances, Netanyahu is unfit to serve.

Narrow government

A narrow government would set the stage for a potentially rocky term where Netanyahu would have to navigate his legal woes, confrontations with Iran and its proxies, and President Donald Trump’s proposal for Middle East peace. That blueprint heavily favours Israel, which can start annexing large chunks of West Bank territory over the objections of the Palestinians, who want the territory for their hoped-for state and have rejected the Trump plan.

But some of Netanyahu’s nationalist allies will resist the plan’s call for Palestinian statehood, no matter how limited. One of his prospective coalition partners, defence minister Naftali Bennett, has said his New Right party would not agree to transfer an inch of land to “the Arabs”.

Palestinians, who saw some of their worst fears confirmed with the release of the Trump plan in January, were dismayed by the election’s outcome.

“It is obvious that settlement, occupation and apartheid have won the Israeli elections,” Saeb Erekat, secretary-general of the Palestine Liberation Organisation, said on Twitter. “Netanyahu’s campaign was about the continuation of the occupation and conflict. Which will force the people of the region to live by the sword: continuation of violence, extremism and chaos.”

The results take Israel nearly back to where it was in May 2019, when Netanyahu could have formed an unstable, 60-seat government after the April ballot. Instead he disbanded parliament and engineered the September re-vote, which delivered another inconclusive result.

Political uncertainty

While Israel lurched from election to election, its political uncertainty spooled out across a year of confrontations with Iran-backed militants in the Gaza Strip, Lebanon and Syria. Decisive action has been put off on multiple fronts, and while the economy has been robust, risks are piling up.

A conclusive win would allow Netanyahu to draft a long-delayed budget, reassure investors and credit rating companies, and prepare a response to a possible economic downturn.

The economy expanded at a faster-than-expected 3.5% rate last year, but Israel is “the only country that is uniformly exposed to risks emanating from China, the eurozone and the US, which makes it relatively vulnerable,” analysts at Deutsche Bank wrote in a February 28 report. A larger-than-expected slowdown in global growth could push the Israeli economy towards recession and prompt authorities to consider quantitative easing, they said.

Isolated stations

In a sign of the times, isolated voting stations were set up in parking lots to accommodate the roughly 5,700 Israelis under house quarantine after they were potentially exposed to the coronavirus.

Israel’s longest-serving leader will be keen to wrap up coalition talks quickly and get back to business that was interrupted after he called early elections in December 2018 and set Israel on the path of political gridlock. He’s given inconsistent answers when asked if he’ll try to push through legislation that would shield him from prosecution as long as he remains in office.

Channel 13 TV reported that his lawyers will ask for a delay in the start of his trial, due to begin March 17.

“Israelis voiced their support for the man they perceive to have bringing them security and prosperity,” said Yohanan Plesner, president of the Israel Democracy Institute research centre.

“At the same time, the country is heading towards constitutional uncertainty. On March 17 the prime minister’s trial will begin and the country will find itself in the unprecedented situation in which the man in charge of institutions of law and order will begin his fight to clear his name in court.”

Turning nasty

Critics have alleged that Netanyahu’s ability to attend to affairs of state will be severely hampered by his court case. The prime minister has dismissed those concerns, and maintains the bribery and fraud charges are baseless allegations cooked up by left-wing opponents who want to drive him from power because they deplore his nationalist agenda.

The Israeli leader is accused of accepting about $290,000 in gifts over a decade from wealthy friends, and scheming to win sympathetic press coverage by benefiting media moguls.

Netanyahu had consistently trailed Gantz in polls throughout the campaign until the last leg, when the discourse turned nastier and more personal. The prime minister insinuated that the former military chief was unstable, and his campaign was hurt by a leaked tape of a Gantz adviser calling his boss a “danger” to the people of Israel.

A close Netanyahu aide was heard in a leaked recording as saying “hate is what unites” the right-wing camp. The prime minister called the comments “unacceptable”.

Bloomberg

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