Ne­tanyahu edges ahead, but no clear win­ner

The Buffalo News - - WORLD NEWS - By Is­abel Kershner and David M. Halbfinger

JERUSALEM – Ben­jamin Ne­tanyahu, Is­rael’s con­ser­va­tive prime min­is­ter for the past decade, and his chief ri­val, Benny Gantz, a cen­trist for­mer mil­i­tary chief, were locked in a tight race in Tues­day’s par­lia­men­tary elec­tion, ac­cord­ing to par­tial re­turns and sur­veys of vot­ers leav­ing the polls.

With about 65 per­cent of the bal­lots counted, Ne­tanyahu’s Likud party ap­peared to have edged ahead of Gantz’s Blue and White, and a count of the broader blocs sup­port­ing each party gave Likud a clear ad­van­tage in be­ing able to form a gov­ern­ing coali­tion.

Re­gard­less of who be­comes the next prime min­is­ter, the elec­tion ap­peared to be a grave scare for Ne­tanyahu, 69, a dom­i­nant global player who has built a strong econ­omy, kept the coun­try safe and de­liv­ered a se­ries of long-sought diplo­matic vic­to­ries, many of them thanks to Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump.

Gantz’s per­for­mance was a re­mark­able achieve­ment for a po­lit­i­cal new­comer and a brand-new party. Gantz, a ca­reer sol­dier who re­tired as chief of staff in 2015, en­tered pol­i­tics last year for the first time, join­ing forces with two other for­mer army chiefs.

More than 1 mil­lion Is­raelis ap­peared to have voted for Gantz’s Blue and White party, plac­ing it in the po­si­tion of be­ing the main al­ter­na­tive to Is­rael’s right wing, a spot once held by the La­bor party. The re­sults were likely to take fuller shape as vote count­ing pro­gressed in the early morn­ing. The ques­tion of who will form the next gov­ern­ment may not be known un­til the bal­lots of sol­diers, pris­on­ers and hospi­tal pa­tients are counted later this week.

The exit polls of the three main tele­vi­sion chan­nels were suf­fi­ciently dis­parate that both sides claimed vic­tory.

“This is a night of tremen­dous vic­tory,” Ne­tanyahu said. He said he ex­pected to forge a new coali­tion with the right-wing par­ties he called his “nat­u­ral part­ners,” but that he in­tended to be “the prime min­is­ter of all the ci­ti­zens of Is­rael.”

Ear­lier, Gantz en­tered a elec­tion­night head­quar­ters in Tel Aviv to cheers. He promised to be “the prime min­is­ter of ev­ery­one and not just of those who voted for us,” and ar­gued, when early exit polls had him in the lead, that the largest party should be the one granted the man­date to form the next gov­ern­ment.

That de­ci­sion will be up to Pres­i­dent Reu­ven Rivlin, who in the next few days will meet with rep­re­sen­ta­tives of all the par­ties and, based on their rec­om­men­da­tions, de­cide to call upon who­ever he thinks has the best chance to form a gov­ern­ment.

“For the first time in Is­rael’s his­tory the pres­i­dent’s role may be more than sym­bolic, and he may have to ex­er­cise judg­ment in choos­ing who will form the next gov­ern­ment,” Yohanan Plesner, pres­i­dent of the Is­rael Democ­racy In­sti­tute, wrote on Twit­ter.

As Ne­tanyahu has drifted steadily to the right, the left has mi­grated to the cen­ter, af­ter years of vi­o­lence in the early 2000s and the ab­sence of a vi­able peace process since.

He has ben­e­fited from sup­port from Pres­i­dent Trump, who in the past two years has with­drawn from the Iran nu­clear deal, rec­og­nized Jerusalem as Is­rael’s cap­i­tal and just two weeks ago rec­og­nized Is­rael’s sovereignty over the Golan Heights.

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