Partial tally confirms Likud, Blue and White in dead heat, Liberman as kingmaker

Two main parties both at 32 seats; MK Avigdor Liberman, with 9 seats, repeats pledge that he will only join a broad unity government

Photo composition (L to R): Blue and White chief Benny Gantz, Yisrael Beytenu chairman Avigdor Liberman and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. (Yonatan Sindel, Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)
Photo composition (L to R): Blue and White chief Benny Gantz, Yisrael Beytenu chairman Avigdor Liberman and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. (Yonatan Sindel, Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)

Non-final election results early Wednesday confirmed a political deadlock, giving the Likud party and its rival Blue and White the same number of seats but neither of the parties the ability to form a government without Yisrael Beytenu.

With over 90 percent of ballots counted as of 6:30 a.m., Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud and centrist challenger Benny Gantz’s Blue and White stood at 32 seats apiece.

In third place stood the Joint List, an alliance of mostly Arab Israeli parties, with 12 seats, followed by the ultra-Orthodox Shas and secular Yisrael Beytenu with nine apiece.

Bringing up the rear were the ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism (8), the nationalist alliance Yamina (7), center-left Labor-Gesher (6) and the leftist Democratic Camp (5).

Extreme-right party Otzma Yehudit fell below the 3.25% threshold for entry into the Knesset.

The results would appear to give the Netanyahu-led right-religious bloc 56 seats and the Gantz-led center-left-Arab bloc 55. In the middle is Yisrael Beytenu, whose leader, MK Avigdor Liberman, has vowed to force Likud and Blue and White into a unity government.

The figures indicated that the deadlock from the previous elections on April 9 would continue, as both Likud and Blue and White failed to strengthen their positions. Netanyahu’s difficult situation was compounded by the fact that the right-wing bloc bled several seats to Liberman.

On Wednesday morning the Yisrael Beytenu leader told reporters outside his home that “there is only one option: a broad unity government.”

“The picture is clear and one seat here or there won’t make any difference,” he said.

The hawkish, secular Liberman stressed that he will not bring Yisrael Beytenu into a coalition with the Joint List, an alliance of mostly Arab parties, saying that would be “absurd.”

He similarly ruled out serving in a coalition with ultra-Orthodox parties and asserted that there would not be another re-vote because there would not be a majority of MKs to dissolve parliament again.

MK Yisrael Beytenu party leader speaks at the party headquarters on elections night, September 17, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The election results were based on Hebrew-language media reports of ballot counts, while an official website managed by the Central Elections Committee lagged behind with only some 30% of votes tallied.

Earlier Wednesday morning, before final results were available but after exit polls showed that he had not reached the 61-seat right-wing bloc he wanted, Netanyahu vowed to keep going, saying Israel needs “a strong government, a stable government, a Zionist government, a government that is committed to Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people.”

Rejecting the idea of a coalition that would include the Joint List as a partner — though no one has proposed such a coalition — Netanyahu said there cannot be a government that relies on “parties that praise and glorify bloodthirsty terrorists who kill our soldiers, our citizens, our children.”

The comments could signal the combative Likud leader’s support for unity, as any left-center government would need to partner with the Joint List if it didn’t bring in Likud or other right-wing or religious parties.

Netanyahu has previously thrown cold water on Liberman’s proposed national unity government of Yisrael Beytenu, Blue and White,  and Likud, while Blue and White has said it would join a coalition with Likud, but only if it deposes Netanyahu, who is facing indictment on corruption charges pending a hearing.

Netanyahu said he had spoken to his prospective coalition partners and will soon launch negotiations to create a “strong Zionist government” and thwart the formation of an “anti-Zionist” government.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanya speaks at the Likud headquarters on elections night in Tel Aviv, on September 18, 2019. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Shortly after exit poll results were announced, the premier spoke by phone with Shas party head Aryeh Deri, UTJ leaders Yaakov Litzman and Moshe Gafni, and New Right party member Naftali Bennett, who ran in the elections with the right-wing Yamina alliance.

They all agreed to cooperate moving forward and Gafni reiterated UTJ’s pledge to recommend Netanyahu get the first crack at forming a government, according to Hebrew media reports.

Gantz, who had prematurely declared victory immediately after polls closed in April, was more cautious on Wednesday morning, telling supporters that his party’s campaign had “completed the mission.”

“We proved that the idea called Blue and White, an initiative that we started a few months ago, is a success, big-time, and it’s here to stay,” Gantz told some 200 party faithful in Tel Aviv.

Blue and White party chairman MK Benny Gantz at the Blue and White headquarters on elections night in Tel Aviv, on September 18, 2019. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

Gantz wasted little time in reaching out to potential allies, including reportedly calling Joint List leader MK Ayman Odeh.

Gantz did not mention Odeh in his speech but said he had already spoken to Labor chairman Amir Peretz and the head of the left-wing Democratic Union, Nitzan Horowitz, in a bid to start future coalition negotiations.

“I will also speak to Liberman, I intend to speak to everyone,” he said. “Starting tonight, we will start work on building a broad national unity government.”

The next several weeks are expected to heavily feature coalition wrangling, as parties attempt to jockey to form a government.

The unprecedented second round of elections was called after Netanyahu failed to form a coalition following the April 9 poll and chose to try his luck with voters again rather than give neophyte former general Gantz the chance to finagle support for a ruling coalition.

President Reuven Rivlin, who decides whom to task with forming a government, has promised to do what he can to avoid a third round of voting.

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