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Israel's Netanyahu clings to power as coalition talks loom

Sep 20, 2019
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* Netanyahu trails rival Gantz in latest election count

* Gantz’s Blue and White rebuffs unity government call

* President to start consultations with parties on Sunday

By Stephen Farrell

JERUSALEM, Sept 20 (Reuters) – Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu faced Israeli media headlines on Friday suggesting power is slipping from his grasp after an election in which he trails his main rival with nearly all votes counted.

The right-wing leader failed on Tuesday, for the second time in five months, to secure a clear election victory and the centrist Blue and White party led by ex-armed forces chief Benny Gantz rebuffed his calls to join a unity government on Thursday.

Near-final results released by the Knesset’s election committee on Friday showed Blue and White will be the largest single party in the new parliament with 33 of the 120 seats.

That is two fewer seats than in the current parliament but Netanyahu’s Likud Party fared even worse, winning 31 seats, down three from 34 before Tuesday’s ballot.

Israeli newspapers and commentators depicted the 69-year-old leader as in a weakened position, with headlines such as: “Himself Alone”, “Political Death Spasms,” “Unity Spin” and “Gantz Tells Netanyahu: Unity Under My Leadership.”

President Reuven Rivlin will on Sunday start consultations with party leaders about their preference for prime minister, and will then choose the one he thinks has the best chance of putting together a coalition.

His office said the consultations “normally last around two days,” and that he would then begin the process of inviting candidates to form a government.

Netanyahu has dominated the political scene for more than a decade with tough security-first policies, an instinct for how to dominate news cycles at the expense of rivals, and frequent trips to Washington, Moscow and other world capitals.

There were only narrow differences in the two main parties’ campaigns on many important issues, and an end to the Netanyahu era would be unlikely to bring significant changes in policy on relations with the United States, the regional struggle against Iran or the Palestinian conflict.

Netanyahu, a man known to his adoring Likud supporters as “the magician”, has survived difficult situations before.

Many political analysts are waiting to see what manoeuvres he will try to prolong his political survival, not least to claim a public mandate in the face of possible corruption charges that prosecutors may bring within months. He denies any wrongdoing, accusing his critics of mounting a witch-hunt.

COALITION-BUILDING

Netanyahu and Gantz will now seek potential coalition allies, prominent among whom is the far-right former defence minister Avigdor Lieberman. He secured eight seats for his Yisrael Beitenu party, making him a potential kingmaker.

This was a gain of three seats from the April election, after the electorate rewarded Lieberman, a fiercely secular West Bank settler, for confronting Netanyahu on the long-standing divide between secular and ultra-religious Israelis.

Increased turnout by Israel’s 21-percent Arab minority saw the Arab-dominated Joint List coalition grouping win 13 seats, making it the third largest grouping after Likud and Blue and White.

This was three seats more than the same parties won in April when they failed to unite. Analysts said it reflected the Arab parties coming together, and a significant get-out-the-vote campaign in Arab communities, many of them intent on removing Netanyau from power.

The religious parties representing Israel’s Ultra-Orthodox communities, known as Haredim, remain a significant force, with Shas winning nine seats and United Torah Judaism eight seats.

The right-wing Yamina won seven seats, the leftist Labor-Gesher six, and the Democratic Union five. The full official results will be published next Wednesday, once a few outstanding polling stations have been tallied. (Editing by Timothy Heritage)

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