JERUSALEM (AP) — Uncertainty hovered over the outcome of Israel’s parliamentary election Wednesday, with both Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and sworn political rivals determined to depose him apparently lacking a clear path to a governing coalition.
Deadlock in the 120-seat parliament was a real possibility a day after the election, which had been dominated by Netanyahu’s polarizing leadership.
With about 90% of the vote counted by Wednesday morning, 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 Netanyahu ally-turned-critic Naftali Bennett were to join a Netanyahu-led government. Bennett has refused to endorse either side.
At the same time, a small Arab party emerged as a potential kingmaker on Wednesday morning after the latest count indicated it would cross the threshold to get into parliament. Like Bennett, the head of the Ra’am party, Mansour Abbas, has not ruled out joining either camp.
“We’re not in anyone’s pocket,” he told the 103 FM radio station.
“We’re willing to have contact with both of the sides with anyone who is trying to form a government and sees himself as a future prime minister,” Abbas added, reflecting the long road of negotiations ahead. “If there’s an offer we will sit, we will talk.”
With key players on both sides ruling out an alliance with Abbas, a fifth election also remained a possibility if neither camp can form a coalition. In that case, Netanyahu would remain a caretaker prime minister while facing a corruption trial and possible confrontation with U.S. President Joe Biden over Iran.
The final tally of the votes cast at regular polling stations was near complete on Wednesday, Israeli media said. But even then, much could still change. The elections commission was still counting about 450,000 absentee ballots from voters who cast them outside their home polling place.
The initial results showed the country as deeply divided as ever, with an array of small sectarian parties dominating the parliament.
The results also signaled 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 ultranationalist anti-Arab religious party.
MENAHEM KAHANA via AFP via Getty Images Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, leader of the Likud party, appears with his wife Sara to address supporters at the party campaign headquarters in Jerusalem early on March 24, 2021, after the end of voting in the fourth national election in two years. (Photo by menahem kahana / AFP) (Photo by MENAHEM KAHANA/AFP via Getty Images)
After three previous inconclusive elections, 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 Wednesday, a subdued 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.”
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 Bennett has not ruled out joining forces with Netanyahu’s opponents.
During the campaign, Netanyahu emphasized 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, then-President Donald Trump.
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.
Over 6,000 Israelis have died from COVID-19, and the economy continues to struggle with double-digit unemployment.
They also point to Netanyahu’s corruption trial, saying someone who is under indictment for serious crimes is not fit to lead the country. Netanyahu 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, a contrast to Trump’s support. Netanyahu has hardly mentioned the new American president, with whom he’s 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.