Netanyahu, right-wing allies vow to form ‘strong national government’

PM agrees with party chiefs from his bloc to assemble new coalition as soon as possible, though exit polls say they’re one seat short of a majority

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gives a speech at a Likud election rally in Ramat Gan, Feb 29, 2020. (Gili Yaari/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gives a speech at a Likud election rally in Ramat Gan, Feb 29, 2020. (Gili Yaari/Flash90)

Shortly after exit polls showing an apparent Likud surge to 36 or 37 seats from its current 32 on Monday night, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu phoned his right-wing and Haredi political partners to forge an agreement on forming a “strong national government” in the newly elected 23rd Knesset.

Polls by all three major television networks, channels 12, 13 and the Kan public broadcaster, all gave the pro-Netanyahu rightist-Haredi coalition 60 seats, one short of a 61-seat majority. The figure may well change as the last two hours of polling are added to the figure and actual ballots are slowly counted overnight.

Netanyahu celebrated the apparent success with a simple tweet of “Thank you” to his supporters, followed by another tweet hailing the showing as “a huge victory for Israel.” He was slated to speak at Likud election-day headquarters at 11:45 p.m.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu celebrates in his Jerusalem office with his family and staff, after exit polls come out on March 2, 2020. (Twitter)

Rival Benny Gantz, head of Blue and White, in his first reaction tweeted a brief thanks to activists and voters who cast ballots for his centrist party.

“I’ll continue to fight for [our] way, for you,” he wrote on Twitter.

Likud officials lauded their apparent triumph at the polls and insisted a 60-seat rightist-Haredi coalition would be able to siphon a handful of lawmakers from beyond the coalition to round out a majority.

At Blue and White election headquarters, a stunned silence prevailed, with activist Nachum Schwartzberg saying the “main feeling” was “disappointment.”

“The main disappointment is that people ignored the disgraceful campaign of the Likud and the three indictments against Netanyahu,” he said. “We have to wait until the final results, but it’s not a good night.”

Party officials were equally crestfallen, describing the results as a “real blow,” but trying to remain positive.

“No one is going to give up hope for a better future,” one party official said earnestly.

Workers prepare balloons at the Likud party’s electoral campaign headquarters in the coastal city of Tel Aviv on March 2, 2020. (Jack Guez/AFP)

Likud leaders, meanwhile, broadcast optimism.

Justice Minister Amir Ohana, speaking to the Kan public broadcaster, said Likud “has a few options” to win over defecting lawmakers from across the aisle to round out its majority, and indicated he expects some Blue and White lawmakers to jump ship.

“I won’t name names,” he said, but expressed confidence there won’t be a fourth round of elections. “The public has spoken in a very clear way,” Ohana added.

“The people had its say,” Likud’s Nir Barkat echoed to Channel 12. “Now all the parties need to unite and help us form a coalition to deal with the nation’s challenges. We need a budget, we have a deficit. We can’t go to a fourth election. Stop dealing with yesterday, we have to deal with the country’s problems.”

Netanyahu, he said, “will try to form a coalition as broad as possible.”

Blue and White’s no. 5, MK Avi Nissenkorn, admitted the centrist faction was “disappointed,” but told Channel 13 that “Netanyahu still doesn’t have a coalition. We’ll wait for final results.”

Blue and White MK Meir Cohen agreed the results were “disappointing,” but urged pundits to “wait for final results. And I don’t believe there will be defectors. We say clearly, we won’t sit with Netanyahu.”

Yisrael Beytenu, whose six-eight seats may hold the key to a Likud victory, would not sacrifice “one iota of our principles,” party leader Avigdor Liberman said Monday night, urging observers to wait until real results are in, since the exit polls showed figures too close to call.

The party’s no. 2, MK Oded Forer, said it would stick to its secularist demands in future talks. “This is not about positions, it’s about principles,” said Forer.

MK Orly Levy-Abekasis, head of the Gesher party in the left-wing Labor-Gesher-Meretz alliance, sparked speculation about her political future when she tweeted in the wake of the exit poll results that she “hopes to wake up tomorrow to a new era of action.”

MK Amir Peretz, leader of the Labor party, right, and Orly Levy, head of the Gesher party, seen at an opening event for the new election headquarters in Tel Aviv, on July 24, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Levy removed the post a short time later, after journalists asked if it signaled a shift in her loyalties.

“Nothing has changed, we’re continuing on our path,” a statement from her spokesperson said.

An SMS poll apparently sent by Likud’s campaign asked party members — and journalists who noticed the message Monday night — whether Levy-Abekasis would be a good finance minister in the next government.

It is not immediately clear if the SMS poll reflects contact between Likud and Levy-Abekasis, the daughter of a former Likud foreign minister and herself a former Yisrael Beytenu lawmaker, to round out Netanyahu’s majority — or if the poll itself is an attempt to sow distrust on the left or to make other prospective defectors more likely to be amenable to the idea.

Joint List leader MK Ayman Odeh, whose Arab-majority faction is the third-largest in the incoming Knesset — and drew the best election result the Arab Israeli community has ever delivered — called his 14-seat result “our biggest achievement since the first Knesset.”

He said it showed Israel’s Arab citizens were “responsible and understand the importance of this moment.”

Netanyahu’s apparent political survival, he added, was “because of the racist posture of Blue and White, which talked about ‘Jewish majorities.’ We did our part, they failed.”

Joint List lawmaker MK Ahmad Tibi echoed the sentiment.

“Blue and White need to draw conclusions after their failure — racism is not the way to victory,” he told Army Radio.

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