Netanyahu's future hangs in the balance as prime minister trails in initial election results

Netanyahu claims he was the victim of media bias, says government cannot be "based on support from Arab parties"

By Matthew Rozsa

Staff Writer

Published September 18, 2019 10:10AM (EDT)

Benjamin Netanyahu (AP/Ronen Zvulun)
Benjamin Netanyahu (AP/Ronen Zvulun)

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu refused to concede Tuesday's re-run general election, even though initial results show he lags behind chief rival Benny Gantz and his right-wing bloc is unable to reach the 61 seats required to form a parliamentary majority.

Netanyahu claimed he was the victim of biased media coverage and insisted that the opposing center-left Blue and White Party led by Gantz was insufficiently Zionist, arguing that "no government can be based on support from Arab parties."

Official results have not yet been returned, a process which could last a few days, according to CNN. However, all three of Israel's three main TV news channels have projected that Gantz's party will win 32 seats, while Netanyahu's party will win 31 seats. With no clear path to a coalition, both Gantz and Netanyahu will need to negotiate with the various political parties that won seats in the Knesset — the 120-member parliament that runs the country — in order to form a viable government.

Netanyahu was re-elected when Israel held an initial general election back in April. In Israeli politics, prime ministers are elected by forming a majority coalition within the Knesset, with 61 seats being the bare minimum necessary for victory. Although Netanyahu formed a coalition with 65 seats, his victory was snatched away from him when Avigdor Lieberman, the leader of the Yisrael Beiteinu party, insisted that ultra-Orthodox Jewish men be required to serve in the Israeli military. Because Netanyahu was unable to strike a compromise between Lieberman's faction of five seats and the ultra-Orthodox Jews in his coalition, he fell one seat shy of the minimum necessary to hold onto office. As a result, the Knesset was dissolved in May, and snap elections were called, with Benny Gantz once again emerging as Netanyahu's chief rival.

"I have already spoken to Amir Peretz and Nitzan Horowitz, and we will meet in the coming days. I will speak to Avigdor Liberman and others. I intend to speak with everyone," Gantz told his supporters as the results of Tuesday's re-run were tabulated. "I call here to all my political rivals — to leave the disagreements aside and work together to create a fair and equal society for all of Israel's citizens."

Netanyahu has more at stake here than just his political career.  Israeli Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit has indicted the prime minister on charges of fraud, bribery and breach of trust, prompting Netanyahu to push for an immunity bill that would shield him from prosecution so long as he remains in office, which had the backing of the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community. If Netanyahu loses to Gantz, it is widely expected that Mandelblit would proactively pursue his criminal investigation, meaning the embattled prime minister could face jail time.

American politicians from both sides of the aisle have weighed in on Israel's elections. Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., said earlier this month that she "hope[s] that the people of Israel make a different decision" than Netanyahu, while President Donald Trump tweeted in May that he was "hoping things will work out with Israel's coalition formation and Bibi [Netanyahu] and I can continue to make the alliance between America and Israel stronger than ever. A lot more to do!"

By Matthew Rozsa

Matthew Rozsa is a staff writer at Salon. He received a Master's Degree in History from Rutgers-Newark in 2012 and was awarded a science journalism fellowship from the Metcalf Institute in 2022.

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