Cabinet post disputes delay Israeli government inauguration

(Reuters) – The planned inauguration on Thursday of an Israeli unity government headed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been postponed until Sunday, in last-minute wrangling over cabinet appointments, an official statement said.

Under a coalition deal with his former election rival, centrist Benny Gantz, Netanyahu would serve as prime minister for 18 months before the former armed forces chief replaces him.

Gantz had agreed to the delay in order to give Netanyahu more time to allocate cabinet posts to Netanyahu’s Likud party members, a joint statement said. Their unity government deal ends more than a year of political deadlock in which three inconclusive elections were held.

(Writing by Maayan Lubell; Editing by Jeffrey Heller)

Netanyahu fate at stake as coalition deal challenged in top court

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Israel’s top court on Monday heard challenges to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s bid to secure a governing coalition, with opposition figures arguing a deal on a new unity administration would unlawfully shield him in a corruption trial.

The Supreme Court’s 11-justice panel convened for a second day after hearing separate petitions on Sunday against Netanyahu’s authority to form a government given his indictment on charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust.

Rulings are expected by Thursday. Should the court find against Netanyahu on either front, it would likely trigger a snap election – the fourth since April 2019 – as the country grapples with the coronavirus crisis and its economic fallout.

Netanyahu and his main rival Benny Gantz signed an agreement last month to form a unity government under which they would take turns leading Israel after their three, inconclusive ballot runs. They cited the coronavirus crisis in forming the pact.

In power for more than a decade and currently head of a caretaker government, right-wing Netanyahu would serve as prime minister of a new administration for 18 months before handing the reins to centrist Gantz, according to the unity deal.

Netanyahu, 70, would then assume the role of “substitute prime minister”, which some analysts say would exempt him from a law that requires cabinet-level ministers to resign from public office if they are indicted on criminal charges.

Netanyahu’s trial is due to open on May 24. He has denied any wrongdoing and accused political rivals of a “witch-hunt”.

The coalition deal also grants Netanyahu influence over important judicial appointments, which critics argue gives the premier undue sway over the outcome of his own proceedings.

The pact has support from a majority in parliament. But several groups, including opposition parties and democracy watchdogs, petitioned the Supreme Court to nullify the deal, arguing in part that it shields Netanyahu from legal penalties.

Some analysts have said the court, though cast by Netanyahu loyalists as liberal and interventionist, was unlikely to strike down the deal or bar Netanyahu from forming a government.

Responding to the petitions, Israel’s Attorney-General Avichai Mandelblit said that while certain aspects of the deal “raise major difficulties”, there were no grounds to disqualify it.

(Reporting by Rami Ayyub, Editing by William Maclean)

Netanyahu and Gantz move closer to unity government in surprise twist

By Jeffrey Heller

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s main rival, Benny Gantz, was elected Speaker of parliament on Thursday in a surprise manoeuvre that could herald a unity government keeping the veteran leader in power.

With only the partial backing of his centrist Blue and White party and the support of Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud, Gantz left many of his own political allies fuming over the smoothing of a path to partnership with a prime minister under criminal indictment.

The surprise twist in 48 hours of political drama plunged Blue and White in disarray. But Gantz’s move kept open the possibility of a “rotation” deal in which he and Netanyahu would take turns as prime minister.

Each has insisted on going first, following three inconclusive national elections in less than a year.

Netanyahu has proposed a “national emergency” government with Gantz to help tackle the coronavirus crisis.

Israel’s president, who enjoys wide public respect, had pressed them to join forces, with Israelis facing a possible national lockdown within days to try to lower infection rates.

“Israel is facing a growing number of (coronavirus)infections and the number of victims is rising daily,” Gantz told parliament, accepting the speaker’s gavel.

Gantz said he intended to advance towards a unity government, and that he had opted to put himself up for the Speaker’s office to promote a deal.

Gantz had ruled out serving with Netanyahu, citing the prime minister’s looming trial on charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust, which he denies.

But Likud had threatened to abandon unity efforts if Blue and White’s original candidate for Speaker, an opponent of a partnership with Netanyahu, was chosen in the newly sworn-in parliament.

Mired in political deadlock, the prospects of Gantz forming an administration on his own had appeared slim.

At least one member of Netanyahu’s right-wing bloc, Defence Minister Naftali Bennett, publicly congratulated both Netanyahu and Gantz on a unity agreement, but there was no formal announcement that a deal had been reached.

(Editing by Maayan Lubell; Editing by Angus MacSwan and Nick Macfie)

With Netanyahu’s fate in question, Israel heads to new election

By Jeffrey Heller

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Israel headed on Wednesday toward a third national election in less than a year with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu facing the fight of his life for political survival after a criminal indictment.

A midnight deadline, the last of a series of set to allow for the formation of a new government after a September election, passed unmet. That triggered another election within three months. Under an earlier agreement between the two main parties, March 2 was the date to be set for the new election.

What had once seemed nearly impossible to many Israelis – a third visit to polling stations after the inconclusive ballots of April and September – carries a heavy economic price: it will be well into 2020 before a new budget is passed, which will mean months of cutbacks that will weigh on growth.

Neither Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud party nor the centrist Blue and White party led by his main rival, former military chief Benny Gantz, won enough seats in the Knesset for a governing majority in the previous two contests.

Both men were delegated the task of forming a coalition, but failed. Each has blamed the other for the impasse, in which neither could agree on the terms for a “rotating” premiership.

Wednesday’s deadline marked the end of a final three-week period in which Israel’s president gave Knesset lawmakers an opportunity to find a new candidate from within their ranks.

In the two previous national elections, Netanyahu’s opponents focused on the three corruption investigations against him that included allegations he dispensed favors to media barons in a push for more favorable media coverage.

But this time, Israel’s longest-serving leader is running under the cloud of a criminal indictment announced last month.

Denying any wrongdoing, Netanyahu, 70, has accused legal authorities of attempting a “coup” aimed at ousting a popular right-wing leader. Critics alleged that Netanyahu was trying to undermine the rule of law and set an election campaign theme portraying himself as the victim of “deep state” conspiracy.

As prime minister, Netanyahu is under no legal obligation to resign as a result of the indictment, and while in office he can ask the legislature to grant him immunity from prosecution.

As caretaker premier, Netanyahu would remain in the post until a new government is formed – a process that could stretch months past a March ballot if what is likely to be tortuous coalition-building is taken into account.

“There are only three reasons for this election – bribery, fraud and breach of trust,” Blue and White lawmaker Yair Lapid told the Knesset, alluding to the charges against Netanyahu.

Vowing to “win big” at the polls, Netanyahu has described himself as best-placed to deal with Israel’s many security threats. He has cited U.S. backing for proposed Israeli annexation of occupied land where Palestinians seeks statehood as a reason for Gantz to partner up with him in government.

“They (Blue and White) want to hide the fact that they did everything to avoid creating a national-unity government that would have annexed the Jordan Valley and applied Israeli sovereignty to the settlements of Judea and Samaria (West Bank),” Netanyahu said in video statement on social media.

“It was they who imposed a new election on us.”

An opinion poll on Israel’s Channel 13 news on Tuesday forecast Blue and White would win 37 seats to Likud’s 33 in the 120-member parliament, increasing the one-seat advantage it gained in the last election.

But it also indicated that both parties could still struggle to secure enough allies for a majority coalition.

(Editing by Mark Heinrich and Tom Brown)

Israeli parties agree on March 2 election if no government formed

By Jeffrey Heller

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Israel’s two biggest parties agreed on Monday on a March 2 election date, barring a last-minute power-sharing deal, with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu fighting for political survival under criminal indictment.

A 21-day period in which parliament can nominate a legislator with majority support to try to put together a ruling coalition expires at 2200 GMT on Wednesday, triggering the legislature’s dissolution and an election within 90 days.

It would be Israel’s third national ballot in less than a year. Recent opinion polls have predicted no dramatic shifts among voters since inconclusive elections in April and September.

Neither Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud party nor the centrist Blue and White party led by his main rival, former military chief Benny Gantz, won enough seats in parliament for a governing majority in the previous two contests.

Both men were delegated the task of forming a coalition, but failed, throwing the ball into parliament’s court. Their parties have been deadlocked in talks on a “unity” administration in which Netanyahu and Gantz would take turns as prime minister.

The two parties, which disagree over which man would serve first and for how long, announced they had agreed on the March 2 election date. The date needs parliament’s approval but the two parties dominate the assembly so it is sure to pass.

The political disarray and a long-running corruption investigation have threatened to curtail Netanyahu’s decade-long hold on power. Last month, Netanyahu, 70, was charged with bribery, breach of trust and fraud.

Denying any wrongdoing, he has accused Israel’s legal authorities of attempting a “coup” aimed at ousting a popular right-wing leader. Critics alleged that Netanyahu was trying to undermine the rule of law and set an election campaign theme portraying himself as the victim of “deep state” conspiracy.

As prime minister, Netanyahu is under no legal obligation to resign following the indictment. A caretaker premier remains in the post until a new government is formed – a process that could stretch months past a March ballot if coalition-building is taken into account.

Before the national poll, Netanyahu would face an internal Likud leadership election. No date has been announced and only one challenger has emerged, former cabinet minister Gideon Saar, with no signs of any broad party revolt to oust Netanyahu.

In a speech on Sunday, Netanyahu said he hoped to avoid another election, “but if one is forced upon us, we will win big.”

(Editing by Timothy Heritage)

‘Dark days’ in Israel after PM and rival fail to form government, election looms

A combination picture shows Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Tel Aviv, Israel November 17, 2019, and leader of Blue and White party Benny Gantz in Tel Aviv, Israel November 20, 2019. REUTERS/Nir Elias, Amir Cohen

By Dan Williams

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Israel’s president told lawmakers on Thursday to name a candidate to form a new government after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and challenger Benny Gantz both failed, a move that probably sets the stage for a third election within a year.

“These are harsh dark days in the annals of the State of Israel,” President Reuven Rivlin said as he announced that the centrist Gantz had failed to muster enough support for a stable coalition following an unsuccessful attempt by the conservative Netanyahu.

During a 21-period mandated by law, Knesset legislators can nominate anyone in the 120-seat assembly to form a government.

If that fails, an election is triggered within 90 days, sending voters back to the polls for the third time within a year after inconclusive elections in April and September.

The prolonged stalemate comes at a tricky time for Israel on the domestic and international fronts.

Its conflict with arch foe Iran has deepened – Israeli warplanes hit Iranian targets in Syria on Wednesday after rockets were fired toward Israel – while the Palestinian issue remains unresolved as violence has flared anew.

Netanyahu’s caretaker cabinet has been unable to plug a gaping hole in government finances and the deficit has swelled over the past year. Relations between Israel’s Jewish majority and its Arab minority, and those between secular Israelis and ultra-Orthodox Jews are also at issue.

For Netanyahu, not securing another term as prime minister also has legal implications. It may increase his vulnerability to possible indictment on corruption charges. Under Israeli law, a sitting prime minister does not have to step down if charged.

Gantz and Netanyahu had looked at a power-share within a national unity government after they came neck-and-neck in both elections. But disputes about details, such as the timeline for rotating the premiership between them, were not resolved.

Turning to lawmakers on Thursday, Rivlin said: “In the coming 21 days, there will be no ‘bloc’ or ‘party’. Each and every person will sit alone with their conscience and will have to answer one question: What is my duty toward the State of Israel?”

But a new and successful candidate emerging from Israel’s fractious party system looked unlikely.

LEADERSHIP CONTEST

Within Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud Party there were stirrings of internal dissent, with two of its 32 lawmakers saying they would now favour a leadership contest.

Many citizens voiced resignation and rancour at a deadlock that has deepened worries over economic and national security matters.

“We’ve had enough of you! Let us know when you make a decision,” read the top headline on the mass-circulation Israel Hayom, alongside pictures of Netanyahu and Gantz as well as Avigdor Lieberman, a far-right political kingmaker.

Israel’s attorney-general is due to announce soon whether Netanyahu – Israel’s longest-serving prime minister – will be formally charged in three corruption cases. Netanyahu denies wrongdoing.

“It’s all about Bibi (Netanyahu) trying to escape jail and you know, we are all in trouble because of his personal problem,” said Nahum Tevet, a 72-year-old Tel Aviv artist.

“He should just step out and leave us alone, to be a normal state again, to have a normal government, to take care of all the problems – the social problems, political problems, economic problems – and God help us.”

(Writing by Dan Williams, editing by Stephen Farrell and Angus MacSwan)

Will ‘The Prince’ dethrone ‘King Bibi’? Israel’s ex-military chief aims at premiership

Will ‘The Prince’ dethrone ‘King Bibi’? Israel’s ex-military chief aims at premiership
By Dan Williams

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Confronted by a right-wing heckler while campaigning for last month’s parliamentary election in Israel, Benny Gantz grabbed the man by the lapels and glared down at him.

“No one’s doing anything wrong by you,” Gantz, who leads the centrist Blue and White Party, told him. “We only want what’s good for you.”

The encounter was part embrace, part menace, and highly ambiguous. So is much else about Gantz, who will try to form a government after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s decision to abandon his own attempts to put together a new coalition.[

President Reuven Rivlin turned to Netanyahu first after the Sept. 17 election, in which no party won a majority. Gantz, was next in line after Blue and White won 33 seats in parliament, one more than Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud.

The 60-year-old general, nicknamed “The Prince” as he rose through army ranks, now has the chance to dethrone Netanyahu, who is sometimes referred to as “King Bibi” after dominating Israeli politics for more than a decade as prime minister.

As chief of the Israeli military between 2011 and 2015, Gantz was a consensus figure. He has tried to retain his broad appeal as head of Blue and White, a newly formed party named after the national colors.

But what he would do in power is not completely clear as he had avoided committing himself on some important issues.

Gantz casts himself as more diplomatically accommodating than Netanyahu, urging redoubled efforts to restart peace talks with the Palestinians, but has stopped short of any commitment to the statehood they seek.

Supporters see Gantz’s reticence as an attempt to calm the political scene after two elections this year – Netanyahu also failed to form a government after an April ballot. They say Gantz would rather keep his own counsel than sap his credibility with promises that voters know will never be delivered.

As top general, Gantz orchestrated two Gaza wars in which around 2,300 Palestinians were killed.

“We don’t differentiate between either Gantz or Netanyahu,” said Moussa Abu Mazouk of Gaza’s dominant Hamas Islamists.

The more moderate Palestinian Authority has said it is open to talking to any Israeli leader. But Hanan Ashrawi, a senior Palestine Liberation Organization official, also said before the September election that Gantz was no different from Netanyahu.QUESTIONS OF CHARACTER

 

Gantz, who is 6 foot 3 inches (1.91 meters) tall, was brought up on a collective farm founded by Holocaust survivors including his parents, and had a stint in a religious school. He is married to an ex-paratrooper with whom he has four children.

Throughout the election he attacked Netanyahu over corruption allegations that have dogged the prime minister for years, and which the veteran leader denies.

Netanyahu’s counter-charge that a suspected Iranian hack of Gantz’s cellphone may have opened him up to blackmail by Israel’s enemy did not appear to dent the challenger’s image.

A more earthy orator than Netanyahu, he makes occasional scriptural word play and is given to reminding listeners of his military background. When his party won more seats than Netanyahu, he spoke of having fulfilled his “mission” and of his rival having failed in his.

Netanyahu has cast Gantz as a “weak leftist” who was gun-shy on Iran and the Palestinians while in uniform.

It was, however, Netanyahu who appointed Gantz as Israel’s top general and, at the time, praised him as “an officer and a gentleman … a warrior and a human being”.

As a brigadier-general in 1999, Gantz took over a liaison unit to Lebanese allies. By the following year, when Israel withdrew from south Lebanon, Gantz was a media darling.

He went on to serve a relatively short period in the West Bank, where a Palestinian revolt raged. Gantz later commanded forces on the Lebanese border but was reassigned before the inconclusive 2006 war with Hezbollah, so was spared much of the after-action blowback from an Israeli inquest.

How he won the nickname “The Prince” is unclear. Some say it stemmed from his assured rise through the ranks, others from what critics call his sense of entitlement.

Gantz has dismissed suggestions he lacks the stomach to fight. Referring to a Hamas military commander whom he ordered assassinated in 2012, he said in January: “The heads of the terrorist groups need to know that Ahmed Jaabari was not the first, nor may he be the last.”

Retired U.S. general Martin Dempsey, who as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff between 2011 and 2015 was Gantz’s counterpart, recalled him as a “superb leader” in that role.

Gantz has made no secret of learning on the job, and is leaning on his partners in the Blue and White leadership, who include two other former military chiefs of staff, a former defense minister and a former finance minister.

(Editing by Timothy Heritage)

Netanyahu tapped by Israel’s president to assemble new government

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Israel’s president tasked Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Wednesday with assembling a new government after power-sharing talks with his strongest rival, Benny Gantz, failed following an inconclusive election.

Netanyahu, head of the right-wing Likud party, and Israel’s longest-serving leader, still has no clear path to a fifth term after emerging from the Sept. 17 ballot, the second this year, short of a parliamentary majority.

“I have decided to give you, sir, the opportunity to assemble a government,” President Reuven Rivlin said to Netanyahu at a nomination ceremony.

He will have 28 days to form a coalition and can ask Rivlin for a two-week extension if necessary. Netanyahu’s failure to clinch victory in a ballot in April led to last week’s election and left him politically weakened.

In the new countdown, Likud has the pledged support of 55 legislators in the 120-member parliament, against 54 for Gantz’s centrist Blue and White Party. The two parties failed to reach a coalition deal in talks launched on Tuesday.

Former Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman, a possible kingmaker, has been keeping his far-right Yisrael Beitenu party on the fence since the Sept. 17 ballot, citing differences with both Likud’s and Blue and White’s political allies.

(Reporting by Jeffrey Heller; Editing by Alex Richardson)

Explainer: “Only Bibi” no more – Israel’s Netanyahu seeks power-sharing deal

By Jeffrey Heller

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – After failing to secure a clear election victory twice in six months, Israel’s longest-serving prime minister now seems to be calculating that he can stay in power only by sharing it.

Following a deadlocked parliamentary election last week, a weakened Netanyahu reissued an offer on Monday to his centrist rival Benny Gantz for a unity government, saying that neither had enough support from respective allies for a majority of 61 seats in the 120-member parliament.

There was no sign Gantz, head of the Blue and White Party, would agree to a coalition with Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud. Gantz cited looming corruption charges against Netanyahu in saying no last week.

Israeli President Reuven Rivlin, who will pick a candidate to try to build a coalition, has called for a unity government – but does not have the legal power to compel Gantz or Netanyahu to form one together.

Wrapping up two days of consultations with leaders of all parties that won parliamentary seats in the Sept 17 ballot, Rivlin summoned Netanyahu and Gantz to a closed-door meeting later on Monday, apparently to urge them to join forces.

WHO HAS THE EDGE?

On paper, Netanyahu now has a slim lead over Gantz in building a parliamentary bloc, with pledges of support from 55 members of a right-wing grouping to 54 for Gantz from left-wing and Arab parties. But it also means that neither has secured a governing majority of at least 61 legislators.

Netanyahu’s slight edge might move Rivlin to ask him to try to build a narrow coalition if a unity government proves impossible. A nominee gets 28 days to do so, with a possible 14-day extension, before Rivlin can turn to someone else.

Gantz had appeared to have 57 backers but three of the Arab Joint List’s 13 members on Monday withdrew support they had pledged to him a day earlier.

Likud won 31 seats to Blue and White’s 33, near-complete results show.

Avigdor Lieberman, whose far-right Yisrael Beitenu party won eight seats, would remain the kingmaker if unity efforts fail. In his meeting with Rivlin, he refused to commit to either Netanyahu or Gantz, citing his own policy differences with Likud’s Jewish ultra-Orthodox allies and Blue and White’s Arab backers.

WHAT ARE THE CHANCES FOR A UNITY GOVERNMENT?

It’s complicated, even though there are only narrow policy differences between Netanyahu and Gantz on many important issues, such as relations with the United States, the regional struggle against Iran and the Palestinian conflict.

Both men appear to be more deeply divided on the composition of a unity government.

Gantz has called for a “liberal” administration, political shorthand for one that does not include Netanyahu’s ultra-Orthodox partners. After the election, Netanyahu swiftly signed a new alliance with them.

And then there’s the question of who would get the top job: Netanyahu, Gantz, or both men – in rotation?

Left-winger Shimon Peres and right-winger Yitzhak Shamir set a historic example when they took turns as prime minister in a unity government from 1984 to 1988.

This time around, if a “rotating” power-sharing agreement is reached, it could be imperative for Netanyahu to serve as prime minister first.

Next month, Israel’s attorney-general will hold a pre-trial hearing at which Netanyahu can argue against his announced intention to indict the Israeli leader on fraud and bribery charges in three corruption cases.

As prime minister, Netanyahu, who denies any wrongdoing in the long-running investigations, would be under no legal obligation to resign if formal charges are filed. But any other cabinet post he might hold would not offer him that protection.

Netanyahu’s supporters in the legislature have also pledged to seek parliamentary immunity for him against prosecution. Any unity deal with Gantz would likely have to address that issue.

(Editing by Timothy Heritage)

Israel’s Netanyahu clings to power as coalition talks loom

By Stephen Farrell

JERUSALEM (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 on Friday by the Knesset’s election committee showed Blue and White will be the largest single party in the new parliament with 33 of the 120 seats, with Netanyahu’s Likud winning 31 seats, three less than it had before.

GRAPHIC: Seat projections in Israel’s election – https://graphics.reuters.com/ISRAEL-ELECTION/0100B2B21D9/ISRAEL-ELECTIONS.jpg

Israeli newspapers and commentators depicted the 69-year-old leader as in a weakened position, with headlines such as: “Himself Alone” and “Political Death Spasms”.

President Reuven Rivlin will on Sunday start consultations with the parties about choosing a leader to put together a coalition.

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.

PALESTINIAN ELECTIONS?

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas appeared to see Israel’s coalition drama as an opportunity for his government in the occupied West Bank to announce election plans.

Abbas told reporters outside Norway’s parliament that he would issue a decree for elections across the West Bank, Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem when he returns to the Palestinian Territories following the U.N. General Assembly in New York.

Despite a long rift with Gaza’s Islamist rulers Hamas, Abbas said his Palestinian Authority, which exercises limited self-rule in the West Bank, would be ready to accept a Hamas victory “because Hamas is a part of our people, we cannot exclude Hamas. They have a right to vote and to nominate themselves.”

Some political analysts said Abbas was unlikely to follow through on his election pledge, pointing to difficulties holding a national vote across Gaza and the West Bank and East Jerusalem, each of which has a different ruling entity.

There have not been any national Palestinian elections for 13 years. Abbas was elected president in 2005 and Hamas won a 2006 parliamentary election, plunging Palestinian politics into a bitter power struggle from which it has not emerged.

PEACE PLAN

One uncertainty is the timing of U.S. President Donald Trump’s long-delayed Middle East peace plan, which was expected soon after Israel’s election, but could unsettle a weakened Netanyahu if released during complex coalition negotiations.

On Friday, Netanyahu met Trump’s outgoing Middle East envoy Jason Greenblatt, a chief architect of the plan.

Many political analysts are waiting to see how Netanyahu tries 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 wrongdoing, accusing his critics of mounting a witch-hunt.

In his election campaign, Netanyahu pledged to annex large swaths of the West Bank, territory Israel captured in a 1967 war where Palestinians seek a state along with Gaza and East Jerusalem. The move drew condemnation from world leaders as detrimental to achieving a lasting peace accord.

Gantz has urged redoubled efforts to restart peace talks with the Palestinians but stopped short of any commitment to the statehood they seek. He has spoken less concretely of Israel maintaining security control of the Jordan Valley.

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

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.

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.

(Additional reporting by Nerijus Adomaitis in Oslo, Rami Ayyub in Jerusalem and Ali Sawafta in Ramallah, Editing by Timothy Heritage)