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With 95% of ballots tallied, vote count fails to break deadlock

Islamist party Ra’am loses a seat to Meretz but remains key player; some of 40% of absentee votes counted; tensions emerge in Netanyahu’s bloc

Electoral workers count ballots in Israel's general elections in Jerusalem on March 25, 2021. (Emmanuel Dunand / AFP)
Electoral workers count ballots in Israel's general elections in Jerusalem on March 25, 2021. (Emmanuel Dunand / AFP)

Election officials continued counting absentee ballots on Thursday, with results so far showing no clear path to a majority coalition for either Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s bloc of supporting parties or his opponents.

The Central Elections Committee said it expected to complete the count on Thursday afternoon.

The committee said the count of ballots overnight Wednesday-Thursday slightly shifted the electoral makeup, with the Islamist Ra’am party losing a seat to left-wing Meretz.

As of late morning, over 4 million votes had been counted, amounting to 95 percent percent of all ballots cast in Tuesday’s election.

That tally included around 40% of the absentee ballots — some 165,000 votes.

(L-R) Meretz MKs Yair Golan, Nitzan Horowitz and Tamar Zandberg celebrate with supporters at the campaign’s headquarters in Tel Aviv on March 23, 2021. (Flash90)

The absentee ballots account for some 10% of the national vote, and could yet determine whether Netanyahu is able to form a new government, whether his rivals can, or whether the political gridlock continues and Israel heads to yet another election after four inconclusive rounds.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addresses his supporters on the night of the Israeli elections, at the party headquarters in Jerusalem, March 24, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

The prospect of a governing coalition appeared to hinge on the Ra’am party, which has not committed to either the pro- or anti-Netanyahu blocs. Complicating a potential majority government, right-wing lawmakers in both camps have ruled out basing a coalition on Ra’am’s support, due to what they say is its anti-Zionist stance.

Yesh Atid party leader Yair Lapid speaks at party headquarters in Tel Aviv, on election night, March 23, 2021. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

As the vote count currently stands, Netanyahu’s Likud party would win 30 seats in the 120-seat Knesset.

In his bloc of supporters, the ultra-Orthodox Shas would win 9 seats, United Torah Judaism, 7, and Religious Zionism, 6. The sum would give Netanyahu’s camp 52 seats, short of a 61-seat majority, even with the potential support of Naftali Bennett’s Yamina faction, with 7.

In the bloc of parties opposed to Netanyahu, Yair Lapid’s centrist Yesh Atid party was projected to be the largest party with 17 seats, followed by Benny Gantz’s Blue and White, with 8.

Together with Labor, Avigdor Liberman’s Yisrael Beytenu, the Arab-majority Joint List, Gideon Sa’ar’s New Hope and the left-wing Meretz, the bloc would have 57 seats. It remains unclear who would lead a prospective anti-Netanyahu coalition, as Sa’ar and Bennett have both said they will not sit in a coalition led by Lapid.

Labor leader Merav Michaeli told Channel 12 on Wednesday that her party would consider backing Bennett for prime minister.

Ra’am, with its current tally of four seats, could secure a majority for either side and has emerged as a central player during the vote count.

Netanyahu has said he has not ruled out “parliamentary cooperation” with Ra’am, according to the Kan public broadcaster.

The report said Netanyahu fears Ra’am leader Mansour Abbas could back legislation that would bar a candidate under criminal indictment from forming a government that would effectively block Netanyahu’s path to remaining prime minister.

Ra’am leader Mansour Abbas and party members at the Ra’am headquarters in Tamra, March 23, 2021. (Flash90)

Netanyahu’s opponents are considering the possibility of advancing the legislation, which would require the anti-Netanyahu bloc of parties to win 61 seats, and all support the bill. Netanyahu is on trial in three graft cases.

A Wednesday report said Likud officials reached out to Abbas to ascertain if he would back the legislation barring Netanyahu from being prime minister. Citing “political sources,” the Walla news site said Abbas told Likud he wasn’t in favor of laws aimed against specific individuals, but the party’s position on the matter had not been finalized. Likud denied the report.

Ra’am and the far-right Itamar Ben Gvir ruled out joining forces in a coalition on Wednesday, denting the already slim prospects that Netanyahu could form a razor-thin majority government. Ben Gvir is set to enter the Knesset with Bezalel Smotrich’s right-wing Religious Zionism party following a deal to get him onto the slate engineered by Netanyahu.

Head of the far-right Religious Zionism party MK Bezalel Smotrich and party member Itamar Ben Gvir with supporters and party members at the party headquarters in Modi’in, on elections night, March 23, 2021. (Sraya Diamant/Flash90)

Netanyahu has repeatedly ruled out allying with Ra’am, including last week, saying the move was “out of the question,” though reports on Wednesday indicated he was considering it.

Abbas has remained evasive over potential alliances, saying on Wednesday he was not “in the pocket” of either parliamentary bloc. He said Wednesday he has not been contacted by Netanyahu.

The Likud party appeared split Wednesday morning over the possibility of forming a coalition that relied on the support of Ra’am, with lawmakers from the party making contradictory statements about the potential move.

There were other tensions within Netanyahu’s bloc, with the ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism party criticizing Netanyahu for bolstering the right-wing Religious Zionism faction. United Torah Judaism believes the effort pushed its usual voters to Religious Zionism and cost it representation in the Knesset.

United Torah Judaism lawmaker Uri Maklev told Ynet that Netanyahu “did things that should not be done” during the campaign and “walked all over us.” The party’s leader, Moshe Gafni, said ahead of the elections that the faction “will weigh” its options if Netanyahu did not secure a majority coalition after the vote.

United Torah Judaism’s Moshe Gafni attends a conference in Jerusalem, March 7, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Ynet said anger was brewing in Shas as well, though the party was being more careful about publicly airing criticism of the premier.

Throughout three inconclusive elections over the past two years, Netanyahu has relied on the loyalty of the ultra-Orthodox parties, who had refused to consider a coalition not led by him.

Netanyahu had aggressively lobbied the religious and ultra-Orthodox community to vote for Religious Zionism and its leader Smotrich, to ensure it passed the electoral threshold of 3.25% of votes needed to enter the Knesset.

Ben Gvir also appears to have stirred up trouble for Netanyahu abroad, with officials from Gulf states reportedly warning Israeli diplomats that far-right lawmakers in the Knesset could “hurt normalization,” according to a Wednesday report. Ben Gvir, a Jewish supremacist, supports policies that are widely viewed as discriminatory against Arabs.

A polling station for people that is under quarantine in Jerusalem, during the Knesset Elections, on March 23, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Some 450,000 absentee ballots were cast in the so-called double-envelope system that is used for anyone voting outside a regular polling station assigned to them according to their place of residence. They are all brought to the Knesset to be counted by Central Elections Committee representatives. The process takes longer than the regular count as officials cross-reference the person’s details on the outer envelope to ensure they have not also voted elsewhere. After this is completed, the anonymous inner envelopes are amassed together and the ballots within can be counted like all other votes.

Absentee ballots are usually cast by members of security forces, prisoners, diplomats and persons with mobility issues who can not reach their assigned polling station. This year, polling stations were also set up for people in quarantine, coronavirus carriers, at quarantine hotels and at Ben Gurion International Airport.

Data released on Wednesday night showed the vote breaking along familiar geographic lines, with Likud leading in southern cities, Yesh Atid ahead in Tel Aviv and ultra-Orthodox parties receiving strong support in Jerusalem.

The Joint List beat out Ra’am in most Arab communities, and Avigdor Liberman’s right-wing, secularist Yisrael Beytenu did surprisingly well with Druze voters.

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