Is­raeli vote leaves Ne­tanyahu’s po­lit­i­cal fu­ture in doubt

The Morning Call - - NATION & WORLD | LOCAL NEWS - By Josef Fe­d­er­man

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.

ME­NA­HEM KA­HANA/GETTY-AFP

Is­raeli Prime Min­is­ter Ben­jamin Ne­tanyahu speaks dur­ing his Likud party meet­ing in Jerusalem on Wed­nes­day.

Lieber­man

Gantz

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