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New Hope's Sa'ar: Time for a government of change

4th time’s not the charm: With all ballots tallied, Netanyahu again falls short

Final election results leave no clear path to coalition; anti-Netanyahu bloc has 57 seats, pro-PM bloc has 52; Yamina (7), Ra’am (4) hold balance

Election workers count ballots in Jerusalem on March 25, 2021. (Emmanuel Dunand/AFP)
Election workers count ballots in Jerusalem on March 25, 2021. (Emmanuel Dunand/AFP)

With all votes counted Thursday evening, results showed Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had failed, for the fourth time in a row, to win a clear parliamentary majority. The results left both the premier and his political opponents once again without a clear path to forming a coalition government, and heralded enduring gridlock and a potential fifth election.

The Central Elections Committee said all absentee votes had been counted. Official results will be presented to President Reuven Rivlin next Wednesday, and the CEC formally noted there was a possibility of change until then — but this was widely seen as unlikely.

Netanyahu’s right-wing and religious backers had 52 seats while parties opposed to the premier had 57 between them. The right-wing Yamina party (with 7) and Islamist Ra’am (with 4), have not committed to either side.

Netanyahu would need both parties to achieve a slim majority, but cooperation between the far-right and Ra’am’s Islamists appeared all but impossible.

Meanwhile, a potential “change coalition” of Yesh Atid, Blue and White, Yamina, Yisrael Beytenu, Labor, New Hope and Meretz would have 58 votes, also three short of a majority.

With the final results, New Hope party leader Gideon Sa’ar, who quit Likud to challenge Netanyahu from the outside, but whose party eventually won only 6 seats after once polling at over 20, called to examine all options for forming a government without Netanyahu.

“It is clear that Netanyahu doesn’t have a majority for a coalition headed by him,” he said in a statement. “Now we must work to fulfill the potential for forming a government of change. As I announced on election night, ego won’t be a factor.”

Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid and Labor chief Merav Michaeli met Thursday evening to discuss the election results.

The two “discussed potential cooperation to build a change coalition and replace Netanyahu,” according to a joint statement. “Further conversations will be held.”

Likud, in a statement, said: “The ‘change bloc’ is a whitewashed name for an anti-democratic bloc. The only real change they want is to bring laws that exist only in Iran to limit candidates and to annul the democratic votes of over a million Israeli citizens.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu waves to his supporters after the first exit poll results for the Israeli parliamentary elections, at his Likud party’s headquarters in Jerusalem, March. 24, 2021. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit, file)

The party appeared to be referring to talk in the opposition of legislation to prevent Netanyahu, as a person on criminal trial, from forming a new government.

Sa’ar, a former Likud minister, was being urged by Netanyahu allies Thursday to renege on his central election promise of not joining Netanyahu’s bloc.

MK Bezalel Smotrich, head of the far-right Religious Zionism party, called on Sa’ar and Yamina’s Naftali Bennett to “put personal matters aside and enter a right-wing government.”

“They can and should set… demands that will make this government truly right-wing — in law, settlement, security, Jewish identity, expulsion of infiltrators, the economy, and more. Religious Zionism will of course back them up with these demands, and I am convinced that so will the ultra-Orthodox parties,” Smotrich said.

A campaign poster for Gideon Sa’ar’s New Hope party in Tel Aviv prior to the Israeli general election, on March 18, 2021. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Netanyahu is also likely to focus on members of Sa’ar’s New Hope, most of them former Likud MKs, as he searches for potential “defectors” who could yet get him past the finish line to the coveted 61 seats.

Bennett has refused to rule out sitting in a government with Netanyahu, though he campaigned on the declaration that it was time for a change in leadership.

Smotrich ruled out any parliamentary cooperation with Ra’am Thursday, further narrowing Netanyahu’s options.

“There will be no right-wing government based on Mansour Abbas’s Ra’am party. Period,” Smotrich wrote on Facebook. “The irresponsible voices of some right-wing elements in recent days who support such reliance… reflect dangerous confusion. Friends, get this out of your head. It will not come about, not on my watch.”

A combination image showing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) casting his vote in the Knesset election in Jerusalem on March 23, 2021, and Ra’am party leader Mansour Abbas at the party headquarters in Tamra on election night, March 23, 2021. (Marc Israel Sellem/Pool and Flash90)

The comments came after a report said Netanyahu has not ruled out “parliamentary cooperation” with Ra’am.

On Wednesday, both Ra’am and Smotrich’s far-right faction partner Itamar Ben Gvir ruled out joining forces with each other in a coalition.

Ra’am could potentially put either side over the 61-seat mark for a majority, but right-wing politicians, both in the pro-Netanyahu bloc and the anti-Netanyahu camp, have ruled out basing a coalition on the party’s support, due to what they say is its anti-Zionist stance.

Netanyahu himself has repeatedly ruled out sitting with Abbas in a coalition, saying that Ra’am was no different from the Arab-majority Joint List alliance — long considered a political pariah due to some of its members’ non-Zionist and anti-Zionist views.

Abbas’s movement is the political wing of Israel’s Southern Islamic Movement; like Hamas, it is modeled on the Muslim Brotherhood. Abbas has in the past praised aspects of Hamas’s 2017 charter, although he also criticized the document for not ending the targeting of Israeli civilians by the terrorist group.

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