Swallowing Kulanu and buying off Zehut, Netanyahu ended up losing 300,000 votes
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Blue and White wins more 'soldiers' votes' than Likud

Swallowing Kulanu and buying off Zehut, Netanyahu ended up losing 300,000 votes

Deals to remove competing parties from election boomeranged against Likud, near-final figures show; Blue and White said planning interview blitz next week to claim victory

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right, and Zehut party leader Moshe Feiglin at a joint press conference at Kfar Hamacabiah in Ramat Gan announcing Zehut's withdrawal from the September elections, on August 29, 2019. (Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right, and Zehut party leader Moshe Feiglin at a joint press conference at Kfar Hamacabiah in Ramat Gan announcing Zehut's withdrawal from the September elections, on August 29, 2019. (Flash90)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s efforts to remove two competing parties from the playing field ahead of last week’s election do-over backfired spectacularly, near-final results show, with the Likud — despite having absorbed the Kulanu party, and promised Zehut’s leader a ministerial post in return for dropping out of the race — winning 300,000 fewer votes than the three factions picked up separately in April’s vote.

In the lead-up to the elections on Tuesday, Likud absorbed Kulanu into its slate. Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon’s party had won 10 seats in 2015 and four in April.

Netanyahu also reached a deal with Moshe Feiglin, the head of Zehut, which won 118,000 votes in April but still fell below the 3.25% Knesset threshold, to appoint him a minister in his next government and work towards his agenda of cannabis legalization, in return for Zehut withdrawing from Tuesday’s vote.

Netanyahu took both actions in a bid to shore up support for Likud and avoid lost votes on the right.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon during a press conference at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem on October 9, 2018. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

But while Likud (35) and Kulanu (4) won a total 39 seats in April’s election, and Zehut was ostensibly worth another two or so, the three parties’ alliance turned out to be far less than the sum of its parts, with Likud mustering only 31 seats in Tuesday’s vote.

In terms of votes, the 1,411,157 that went to the three parties in April fell to 1,111,535 for Likud in September. Even on its own in April, Likud had won around 14,000 more votes than that. (The current official vote tally stood at about 99.8 percent as of Friday night, so the numbers could still change a little bit, but not by much.)

Commentators have speculated that some of those Kulanu and Zehut voters ended up voting for Yisrael Beytenu (which rose from five seats in April to eight on Tuesday) instead of Likud, while others may have switched to Blue and White. Indeed some of Zehut’s voters in April were likely traditional left-wing voters enticed by his pro-legalization platform, and may have gone back to supporting left-wing parties on Tuesday.

Related: Did Moshe Kahlon’s ‘sane right’ voters revolt against Netanyahu?

Meanwhile it is also believed that many Likud voters disillusioned by the often-ugly campaign and Netanyahu’s off-brand failure to secure a government after the April vote simply stayed at home.

For the first time in 10 years, Netanyahu also failed to win the so-called “soldiers’ vote.” This contingent of ballots cast in double envelopes to protect the validity of the vote is indeed mostly composed of members of the security forces, but also includes diplomats, handicapped citizens, hospital patients and staff, and prisoners. It is worth around 5-6% of the vote and has traditionally skewed to the right — but the centrist Blue and White won out in that ballot count Tuesday, just as it won more votes than Likud nationally.

Tuesday’s election failed to produce a clear winner. Both Netanyahu and Blue and White chief Benny Gantz seek to secure the premiership despite neither having a clear path to a stable governing coalition.

Channel 12 news reported Friday that Blue and White will launch an interview blitz by its leaders next week, as they seek to paint themselves as the clear winners of the election with a mandate to form a government.

Party heads will meet with President Reuven Rivlin on Sunday and Monday to give their recommendations on who should be tasked with forming the next government. It is not yet clear how many votes Netanyahu and Gantz will each have — and whether they even want to be awarded the task at this stage: many commentators believe the first person tasked with forming a coalition is doomed to fail, and both candidates may prefer to position themselves as second in line.

Israeli law allows three attempts at forming a coalition after the election, within three months’ time. Failure to secure a working government by the end of December will automatically trigger a third election.

The key figure in breaking the political deadlock is Yisrael Beytenu chief Avigdor Liberman.

Liberman has vowed to push for a “liberal, nationalist, wide” unity government made up of his own party, Likud and Blue and White and no religious parties. But Likud has ruled out a coalition that does not include other right-wing and religious parties, and Blue and White has said it will not join a coalition led by Netanyahu — a notion Likud officials have stated, at least publicly, is out of the question.

Liberman has not yet said who he will recommend to the president, and has stated that the party could decide not to recommend anyone. Yisrael Beytenu will meet on Sunday to consider its options.

Channel 13 news also reported that Likud had considered, then ruled out, a plan to try and coax two MKs from the right-wing Yamina party to break away from their faction in order to join Likud, which would have given it an equal number of Knesset seats to Blue and White at 33. It is at any rate questionable whether the two, Naftali Bennett and Matan Kahana, would have agreed to such a scheme.

Composite picture of Blue and White leader Benny Gantz (right) at polling station in Rosh Haayin on September 17, 2019 and Yisrael Beytenu leader Avigdor Liberman (left) at Kibbutz Nahal Oz on September 12, 2019. (Jack Guez/Menahem Kahana, AFP)

On Thursday, the leaders of all the parties in the right-wing religious bloc signed a document pledging to recommend Netanyahu as the next prime minister and vowing to enter a coalition only as a single unit. The premier then called on Gantz to join a government that includes those parties, pressuring him to drop his demand for a “secular” unity government with Likud.

Gantz and other Blue and White leaders dismissed the offer, insisting that the next coalition must have Gantz as prime minister, not Netanyahu, and be committed to liberal policies on religious issues.

In a Facebook post Thursday, Liberman blasted Netanyahu and accused him of “deceiving” the public by proposing a unity government but conditioning it on the inclusion of the ultra-Orthodox and religious right-wing parties.

“As the election results begin to become clear, Netanyahu is working full-time on his new spin that will lead Israel to another round of elections in hope of getting a 61 majority for his dream government,” Liberman said. “Forming a ‘halachic bloc’ of 55-56 MKs for Likud, Haredi parties and messianics, and calling on Benny Gantz to join a unity government with that bloc, is no less than deception and misrepresentation to lay the groundwork for a third election.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (L) greets Benny Gantz, leader of Blue and White party, at a memorial ceremony for late Israeli president Shimon Peres, at Mount Herzl in Jerusalem on September 19, 2019. (Gil Cohen-Magen/AFP)

“Netanyahu, who refuses to accept the public’s decision and admit his own defeat, is grasping at straws trying to create the impression that Likud supposedly won the election and called for a unity government and Gantz and Liberman thwarted that. In reality, he is continuing his attempts to persuade MKs from other parties to join him and the ‘halachic bloc’ he formed.

“I again urge the prime minister to stop the political games, tricks and stunts. Let’s sit down — you, me and Benny Gantz — and form a broad national unity government for Israel’s future.”

With over 99 percent of votes counted, the Orthodox/right-wing bloc led by Netanyahu has 55 seats, the centrist/left bloc led by Gantz has 44, and Yisrael Beytenu holds the balance of power with eight. The predominantly Arab Joint List, which has not said whether it will actively back Gantz, has 13 seats.

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