Israeli vote leaves Netanyahu’s political future in doubt
JERUSALEM — After a decade of mesmerizing world leaders, subduing his rivals and eking out dramatic election victories, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s political future is suddenly in doubt.
With near-final results from Israel’s election on Tuesday, he has been left well short of the parliamentary majority he had sought — not only to continue in power but also to fend off a looming corruption indictment.
With over 90% of the votes counted late Wednesday, challenger Benny Gantz’s centrist Blue and White party captured 33 seats in the 120-seat parliament, to 32 seats for Netanyahu’s conservative Likud.
That leaves neither party poised to control a majority coalition with their smaller allies, leaving maverick politician Avigdor Lieberman, head of the Yisrael Beitenu party, as the key power broker. Lieberman has called for a broad unity government with the two major parties.
“Judging by the present situation assessment, Netanyahu is no longer capable of winning an election in Israel. This story is over,” said Yossi Verter, political commentator for the Haaretz daily.
Such forecasts might be seen by some as premature. But it appears that Netanyahu’s political instincts, once deemed impeccable, led to some questionable decisions that came back to hurt him in the latest campaign.
Netanyahu, who turns 70 next month, has traditionally relied on a stable majority of ultraOrthodox Jewish religious and hard-line nationalist parties. That alliance fell apart following elections in April when Lieberman, a longtime ally turned rival, refused to join a new coalition with religious partners.
Lieberman, a hawk like Netanyahu on security issues but also fiercely secular, said ultraOrthodox parties had gained too much influence. Just short of a parliamentary majority, Netanyahu was forced to take the unprecedented step of holding a second election in a year.
Looming over the campaign were Netanyahu’s legal woes. Israel’s attorney general has recommended indicting him on bribery, fraud and breach of trust charges in a series of corruption scandals, pending a hearing scheduled in early October.
Netanyahu had hoped to capture a narrow coalition of hardline parties that would grant him immunity from prosecution.
He embarked on a campaign of stunts and promises aimed at shoring up his base. Borrowing tactics from the political playbook of his friend, President Donald Trump, he lashed out at the media, police, judiciary and election commission, alleging a vast conspiracy against him. He vowed to annex Jewish settlements in the West Bank and threatened to unleash a war on Gaza militants.
Public fatigue with his leadership may have added to his woes.
Many Israelis have grown weary of Netanyahu’s wife, Sara, and their oldest son, Yair, who have gained a reputation of behaving more like a royal family than public servants. They have been embroiled in repeated scandals in which they allegedly mistreated employees, misused state funds or misbehaved in public.
At a news conference Wednesday, Netanyahu continued his attacks on Arab politicians and vowed to lead the country. “There are only two options: either a government led by me, or a dangerous government that leans on the Arab parties,” he said.
The Blue and White party headed by Gantz, a former military chief of staff, has ruled out a partnership with Likud if Netanyahu stays at the helm. And even if he manages to stay in office, he would not have immunity if charges are filed against him. If that happens, he could be forced to step aside.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during his Likud party meeting in Jerusalem on Wednesday.