Jersualem: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has fallen short of capturing the majority needed to form a government, near-final election results showed on Wednesday, deepening a year of political deadlock and dashing the long-serving leader's hopes for a decisive victory as his trial on corruption charges nears.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gestures during a meeting with his nationalist allies and his Likud party members at the Knesset, Israeli Parliament, in Jerusalem.Credit:AP
In an angry tirade, Netanyahu conceded that he did not have the parliamentary support to form a new government right away. But he still tried to claim victory as he lashed out at his main opponent and disparaged the leading Arab party – the third largest in parliament – as irrelevant.
"This is what the nation decided," he said. "The public gave me more votes than any other candidate for prime minister in the nation's history."
After failing to form a government following two general elections last year and with his legal woes closing in, Netanyahu had been hoping for a clear win in Monday's vote.
With initial exit polls predicting a near majority for Netanyahu and his nationalist-religious allies, he declared a "great victory" to thousands of jubilant supporters under a torrent of confetti on election night.
But Wednesday's near-final tally painted a different picture. With over 99 per cent of the votes counted, Netanyahu's Likud led the way with 36 seats, ahead of challenger Benny Gantz's Blue and White party, with 33 seats. Yet with his allies, Netanyahu's right-wing camp held a total of only 58 seats, three shy of the 61 needed to form a government and no clear path to reaching the threshold. Final results are expected later Wednesday.
In a stunning rebuke to Netanyahu, the Joint List, an umbrella group of Arab-led parties, finished third with 15 seats. It was an all-time high for the Joint List, boosted by voters furious at what was perceived as racist incitement by Netanyahu throughout the campaign against the country's Arab minority.
"Our public feels its power and it wants to exert that power," Joint List leader Ayman Odeh told Israeli Channel 13 TV. "We said no to Benjamin Netanyahu's approach."
In a meeting with his political allies Wednesday, Netanyahu continued to portray himself as a winner, despite the likely impasse he faces.
"The Likud under my leadership became the largest party in a knockout," he said. "The public's decision must be respected."
He did not respond to a reporter's question about lacking a parliamentary majority. But he again lashed out at the Joint List, saying it should not even be considered in the calculations for forming a new government.
The Joint List "isn't even part of the equation," he said, claiming its members are hostile to the state.
While the Arab parties have never sat in an Israeli coalition, they have worked to support policies from the outside, a step they could take again if they can resolve their differences with Gantz.
Gantz also has ruled out a partnership with the Joint List, making it unlikely he can cobble together a coalition either. That means Israel appears headed for deadlock, extending nearly a year of political paralysis.
Netanyahu had been desperate for a strong showing ahead of his trial, which is scheduled to start March 17. Installing a new government would give him an important political boost and potentially allow him to legislate his way out of the legal quagmire.
"There isn't another politician in the world who could have won the largest number of votes after having failed twice to form a government and after having been indicted on three charges," political commentator Ari Shavit wrote on the Makor Rishon news site.
"Nevertheless, Netanyahu and his partners ought to bear in mind that their goal of 61 seats has not been achieved yet. Their hope for a decisive victory was dashed."
Netanyahu was indicted last year on fraud, bribery and breach of trust charges in three separate corruption cases. He denies wrongdoing, saying the charges have been trumped up by a liberal media and a justice system looking to oust him. As prime minister, Netanyahu can not only use his position as a bully pulpit to rally public support but he and his allies also can try to craft legislation to delay or derail prosecution.
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