JERUSALEM - There is no clear winner from Tuesday’s national election in Israel, the second time voters have gone to the polls in the past five months. With almost all the votes counted, the centrist Blue and White Party of former Israeli army chief of staff Benny Gantz has edged out Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud Party.
However, both parties fell far short of the 61 seats needed to form a majority in the 120-seat Parliament. The left-wing bloc has one seat more than the pro-Netanyahu right-wing bloc — 56 seats to 55.
The left-wing bloc includes 13 seats for the Joint List, a mostly Arab party that has never before joined the government. They could support the government from the outside as they have done in the past.
That leaves Avigdor Lieberman as the kingmaker. Lieberman, head of a party called Yisrael Beytenu (Israel is Our Home) supported primarily by Russian immigrants, won nine seats in this election, almost doubling his strength.
He has repeatedly said he favors a unity government, which would mean a government including Gantz’s Blue and White, Netanyahu’s Likud, and his own party.
“A national unity government, a broad liberal government. We will not join any other option. From our point of view, no other option exists,” Liberman said, speaking outside his home in the Jewish settlement of Nokdim.
He laid out a series of demands, including civil marriage in Israel. Currently, the ultra-Orthodox Rabbinic authorities have sole control of marriage and divorce in Israel. He also insisted that all ultra-Orthodox students study a secular curriculum of math and science, and that public transportation operate on the Jewish Sabbath.
After the last election in April, Netanyahu was just one seat short of a 61-seat majority. But Lieberman refused to join his government, which was set to include the ultra-Orthodox, unless the government passed a law to draft ultra-Orthodox yeshiva students into the military — a hot-button issue that has led to violent ultra-Orthodox demonstrations.
This time, a national unity government seems more likely.
“Almost certainly this, what we can call a broad mainstream unity government will exclude the hard ideological camps on the right and the left,” said analyst Yossi Klein Halevi of the Hartman Institute. “That's the only way you can have these two parties sitting together is if their satellite parties are excluded, because the satellite parties are perceived by each party to be too extreme. And so, the coalition again will have to pull more toward the center.”
Gantz has said he will not join a unity government as long as Netanyahu remains head of the Likud Party. Netanyahu is facing a series of corruption charges, and police have recommended he be indicted on three of them. He is supposed to have a final hearing before indictment in the next month.
Once the final results are in, Israeli President Reuven Rivlin will call each of the party heads to his office for consultation and ask each to recommend either Netanyahu or Gantz to form a government.
All of this will probably take several weeks.
“We might enter a period of days and perhaps weeks, when it is unclear who is going to be the prime minister,” said Yohanan Plesner, president of the Israel Democracy Institute. “This is an unprecedented situation, because neither Mr. Netanyahu has a majority of 61 nor does Mr. Gantz. So, we are about to enter a period of political uncertainty.”
Palestinian Foreign Minister Riyad al-Maliki said Wednesday he is prepared to restart peace talks with whomever is able to form a new Israeli government. But he did not say if that includes Netanyahu, under whose leadership peace with the Palestinians has been elusive.