PM: I'll protect Israel; biased media skewed our campaign

Weakened Netanyahu vows to block coalition backed by ‘anti-Zionist Arab parties’

Likud MKs say they stand by PM, claim to be unfazed by poor showing and lack of clear path to a coalition government after exit polls, urge caution until final results are in

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

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addresses supporters at his Likud party's electoral campaign headquarters early on September 18, 2019.(MENAHEM KAHANA / AFP)
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addresses supporters at his Likud party's electoral campaign headquarters early on September 18, 2019.(MENAHEM KAHANA / AFP)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyhau promised early Wednesday morning that despite exit polls showing him unable to form a majority right-wing/ultra-Orthodox coalition for the second time in a year and his chief rival Blue and White scoring slightly more Knesset seats than his Likud party, he would “go on serving the State of Israel and the people of Israel.”

As Likud party activists and supporters who remained until the early hours of the morning chanted “We don’t want unity,” the prime minister delivered a short speech to an almost empty hall at the Tel Aviv Expo Center at 3.30 a.m., 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 any coalition that counts the Joint List, an alliance of Arab-led parties, as a partner, Netanyahu said there cannot be a government that relies on “anti-Zionist Arab parties that oppose the very existence of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state — parties that praise and glorify blood-thirsty terrorists who kill our soldiers, our citizens, our children.”

The comments could signal his reluctant backing for unity with Blue and White by the combative Likud leader, as any left-center government would need the support of the Joint List without bringing in Likud or other right-wing or religious parties, according to preliminary results. However, Blue and White’s leader Benny Gantz has vowed to partner with Likud only if Netanyahu steps aside.

Exit polls published by Israel’s three main television stations had a Likud-led bloc at 54-57 seats, together with Shas, United Torah Judaism and Yamina, at least four short of the 61 seats needed for a majority in the Knesset.

Despite receiving more seats than Likud in exit polls, the centrist Blue and White alliance also had no clear path to a government, likely a harbinger for several weeks of political wrangling and deadlock.

As a result, Yisrael Beytenu party leader Avigdor Liberman, who vowed to force a unity government if neither had a majority without him, appeared to emerge as coalition kingmaker.

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.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (C) waves as he addresses supporters at his Likud party’s electoral campaign headquarters early on September 18, 2019. – Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he was waiting for results in the country’s general election, but that he was prepared for negotiations to form a “strong Zionist government.” He spoke as exit polls showed a tight race between his right-wing Likud and ex-military chief Benny Gantz’s centrist Blue and White alliance. (Photo by Jack GUEZ / AFP)

The prime minister, who has ruled the country for over 10 years, is fighting both for his political survival and hoping to find legislative support for immunity from looming prosecution in three separate graft cases.

His previous attempt to form a government after elections April 9 failed after Yisrael Beytenu balked, leading to Tuesday’s unprecedented rerun vote.

Netanyahu said he had spoken to his prospective coalition partners, who were all allied with him, he stressed, and would soon launch negotiations to create a “strong Zionist government” and thwart the formation of an “anti-Zionist” government. “We will protect Israel,” he promised.

The premier, who has trumpeted his diplomatic prowess, particularly with US President Donald Trump, noted that the Trump administration will soon unveil its peace plan, and the negotiations over it will shape Israel for years, he said.

“We’re still waiting for the results. But one thing is clear, the State of Israel is at a historic turning point. We are facing immense opportunities, and immense challenges… including the existential threat from Iran,” said Netanyahu, who last week vowed to annex parts of the West Bank if he wins.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu prepares to vote at a polling station in Jerusalem on September 17, 2019. (Heidi Levine, Sipa, Pool via AP).

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,” he added.

“I said the election was hard. That’s not the word,” Netanyahu stressed, looking tired. “We faced a campaign that was so tilted against us by the biased media, so against us.”

“As you see, I am hoarse,” he said, attempting to be heard over a loud supporter who interrupted him throughout his address. “But as you know, it’s better to lose your voice than to lose the country.”

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.

Likud party supporters react as exit polls from Knesset elections are published on September 17, 2019. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Likud MKs and ministers on Tuesday evening reacted to exit polls showing it behind or on par with Blue and White by insisting that conclusions should not be drawn until the final results are in.

Likud candidate Gideon Sa’ar casts his ballot in Tel Aviv on September 17, 2019. (Courtesy)

Likud MKs said they had no intention of pushing Netanyahu aside, as rivals have insisted they do, and would explore other options for forming a coalition. “Don’t expect cracks in the Likud,” said MK Gideon Sa’ar, a prospective post-Netanyahu Likud leader, who the prime minister previously charged was plotting a coup against him.

Blue and White had said it would be willing to form a unity government with Likud, but not if Netanyahu remained as its head.

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