UTJ claims it now has 8 seats, at Likud’s expense; election panel denies change
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UTJ claims it now has 8 seats, at Likud’s expense; election panel denies change

If confirmed, gain for ultra-Orthodox party would put Netanyahu’s Likud and Gantz’s Blue and White even, with 35 seats each

Raoul Wootliff is the The Times of Israel's political correspondent.

Members of the United Torah Judaism party meet with President Reuven Rivlin at the President's Residence in Jerusalem on April 15, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Members of the United Torah Judaism party meet with President Reuven Rivlin at the President's Residence in Jerusalem on April 15, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The leader of the United Torah Judaism party on Monday claimed the ultra-Orthodox party had received confirmation of a change in the election results, giving it an extra seat and bringing the Likud party’s tally down to 35 seats, the same amount as its Blue and White rivals.

“We were informed before we met that we gained eight seats, at the expense of Likud,” United Torah Judaism chairman Ya’akov Litzman told President Reuven Rivlin, during consultations over who should be tasked with forming the next government.

However, the Central Elections Committee released a statement on Monday afternoon saying it had not provided any parties with “interim updates regarding the election results” which will it present to Rivlin on Tuesday.

The results announced by the Central Elections Committee on Thursday gave UTJ seven seats and the Likud party 36, but according to the ultra-Orthodox faction, recount efforts have pushed it to eight seats. That would means Likud dropping to 35, the same number as Blue and White.

Several parties, including UTJ, had complained to the committee over what they believed were mishandled ballot boxes or other problems at one or more of the country’s 10,000-plus polling stations on Election Day. The Central Election Committee’s results placed UTJ just several hundred ballots shy of an eighth seat.

Members of the Likud party meet with President Reuven Rivlin at the President’s Residence in Jerusalem on April 15, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

While the tally announced by the committee last Thursday was presented as final, the numbers that it will present to the president on Tuesday will have undergone additional inspection.

Rivlin met with senior representatives of the five largest parties on Monday and will sit down with the remaining six parties on Tuesday in order to receive their recommendations for who should get the first opportunity at assembling a ruling majority.

The president seems almost certain to entrust the task of forming a government to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu regardless of the decision, due to his likely ability to build a coalition of up to 65 seats comprising Likud (35 or 36 seats), the ultra-Orthodox Shas (eight seats), United Torah Judaism (seven or eight), Union of Right-Wing Parties (five), Kulanu (four), and, maybe, Yisrael Beytenu (five).

By contrast, Benny Gantz’s Blue and White — having all but ruled out partnering with the two Arab Israeli parties, Ra’am-Balad and Ta’al-Hadash (and all but been ruled out by them) — can rely only on the backing of Labor and Meretz despite having won 35 seats. While the results put it just behind Likud, its 35 seats increase only to a mere 45 with the backing of the center-left and left-wing parties.

As it announced a seat-count update that ate at Likud’s lead, UTJ affirmed its support for Netanyahu.

“We recommend Benjamin Netanyahu, we completed a good and strong term with him. We think that this is true for all of Israel,” UTJ co-chair Moshe Gafni told Rivlin.

Members of the Shas party hold a press conference after meeting with President Reuven Rivlin at the President’s Residence in Jerusalem on April 15, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Asked by the president how the party hoped to overcome potential disagreements with Avigdor Liberman’s secular Yisrael Beytenu party, UTJ MK Uri Maklev said, “We stand strong in our position and those who want to enter the government will have to adjust. Liberman will have to adapt himself to us.”

Like UTJ, Shas has offered its support for Netanyahu to form the next government, while saying it expected the next government to maintain the status quo on issues of religion and state.

The Knesset’s two ultra-Orthodox factions have reached an agreement with the Union of Right-Wing Parties to coordinate on issues of religion and state during this week’s coalition negotiations, an ultra-Orthodox MK told his community’s Yated Ne’eman daily on Monday.

For its part, the Hadash-Ta’al party told Rivlin during the day’s final consultation that it would not recommend anyone to form the next government. Chairman Ayman Odeh used the opportunity to pan Netanyahu for what he branded as his “divisive” election campaign”

“We endured the most difficult election campaign, full of wild incitement by the prime minister,” Odeh said, also criticizing Likud’s placement of a reported 1,200 cameras in voting booths in Arab towns, which officials from Netanyahu’s party said were designed to counter what they alleged was a high risk of voter fraud in certain areas.

“We do not recommend anyone as prime minister,” Odeh said.

Members of the Hadash-Ta’al party meet with Israeli president Reuven Rivlin at the President’s Residence in Jerusalem on April 15, 2019. Photo by Yonatan Sindel/Flash90

Labor, Yisrael Beytenu, the Union of Right-Wing Parties, Meretz, Kulanu, and Ra’am-Balad will huddle with the president on Tuesday.

Rivlin will announce his decision after receiving the finalized results of the elections from the Central Elections Committee on Tuesday.

Members of the Blue and White party meet with President Reuven Rivlin at the President’s Residence in Jerusalem on April 15, 2019 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

After the president makes his selection — which does not necessarily need to have received the most recommendations or be the head of the largest party — this chosen MK will then have 28 days to form a government, with the possibility of a two-week extension at the discretion of the president.

Rivlin ended the first day of consultations — and the first time the process was broadcast live — by making his way to the press room to thank journalists for “allowing the public to see the process, which I am only carrying out on their behalf.”

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