Recognizing that he may fall short of the votes he needs to build a viable coalition after a fourth inconclusive election, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu refrained from declaring victory in a speech in the early hours of Wednesday morning, and instead pleaded with members of rival parties to put aside personal differences and partner with him to avoid yet a fifth rapid-fire election.
“A clear majority” of the newly elected 120 Knesset members share his overall policies, he said, and he thus intended to spend the next few days “talking with all MKs” who might be willing to help him build a stable government. The only alternative to a coalition under his leadership, he said, would be yet another election.
As ballots were being counted through the night, updated exit polls suggested that neither Netanyahu nor any of his rivals had a clear path to a Knesset majority. After a similar deadlock in elections a year ago, however, Netanyahu persuaded his main challenger at the time, Blue and White leader Benny Gantz, to join him in an “emergency unity government.” His speech this time appeared to mark the opening move in a similar effort to persuade political rivals to ally with him.
Netanyahu’s coalition deal with Gantz collapsed last December when the prime minister failed to pass a state budget and the Knesset automatically dissolved, triggering Tuesday’s elections. Gantz has vowed never again to partner with Netanyahu. The prime minister may be hoping, however, that he can woo defectors from Gantz’s and/or other parties that have vowed not to sit in government with him, including the New Hope party led by former Likud minister Gideon Sa’ar.
Looking tired but calm after an exhausting campaign, Netanyahu, 71, hailed his Likud party’s “extraordinary achievement” in winning a projected 30-plus seats in Tuesday’s vote, and then detailed his and his outgoing government’s achievements — notably including a world-leading coronavirus vaccination campaign, a series of peace agreements, and a firm stance against Iran’s aggression and nuclear weapons goals.
A majority of the public and of the new Knesset backed all these moves, shared his opposition to the International Criminal Court’s decision to open a war crimes probe against Israel and also supported “safeguarding the land of Israel,” he said — using terminology referring to Israel and the disputed West Bank — the biblical Judea and Samaria.
“With this majority, we have to build a stable Israeli government,” he said. “I stretch out my hand to all MKs who believe in this path; I don’t rule anybody out. I expect all who believe in our principles to act in a similar fashion.”
“Join us in this government,” he urged, pledging to build “a right-wing government that will look after all Israeli citizens.”
Netanyahu said he had spoken since voting ended with the leaders of the Shas, United Torah Judaism and Religious Zionism parties, his overt allies, and with Naftali Bennett of Yamina — a former ally, turned rival, who was coy earlier Tuesday night about backing Netanyahu.
Bennett has said repeatedly on the campaign trail that Netanyahu cannot be trusted. Sa’ar has publicly blamed him for plunging Israel into these elections and vowed anew on Tuesday night not to sit in government with him. Gantz, who has called Netanyahu a liar and a manipulator, said Tuesday night he was worried some in the anti-Netanyahu camp might be persuaded to join the Likud leader but made clear that he would not.
Vote counting had barely begun when Netanyahu made his speech, and the final results might change the current picture of ongoing political deadlock.
Netanyahu, who has held power since 2009, and also served as prime minister from 1996 to 1999, is not only battling for his political future. He is also on trial in three corruption cases, with the evidentiary stage set to start on April 5.
Members of Likud and of the Religious Zionism alliance have said they will seek to advance legislation to try to suspend or halt his trial, though he has said he will not support it. The near-deadlocked election result, if borne out in the final tallies, would reduce the likelihood of such legislation winning Knesset approval.