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)

Newsmaker: The anti-Netanyahu? Ex-general Gantz poised for top office

By Rami Ayyub

TEL AVIV (Reuters) – Benny Gantz has little of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s worldly polish or flair as a showy ideologue – and that may be exactly why so many weary Israelis want the ex-general in top office.

A towering and laid-back former military chief, Gantz appears to have edged out the conservative Netanyahu in a Tuesday election, but not enough to win a governing center-left majority in parliament led by his Blue and White party.

A weakened Netanyahu, whose right-wing Likud party also fell short of victory, called on Gantz, 60, on Thursday to join him a broad, unity government. Gantz insists he will not enter an alliance with Netanyahu.

Earlier, Netanyahu was wont to point out that Gantz is a political greenhorn whose foreign policy pedigree is a stint as defense attache at the Israeli embassy in Washington – a resume unlikely to impress world leaders like President Donald Trump.

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

Where Netanyahu envisages annexing the Jordan Valley, part of occupied West Bank land, Gantz has spoken less concretely of Israel maintaining security control of the strategic corridor.

To his critics, that kind of haziness shows indecisiveness and lack of principle. Gantz, who was raised on a collective farm and spent some of his school years in a religious Jewish seminary, describes himself as having more grit than varnish.

“You know I’m not strong with words,” he told a Jerusalem conference earlier this month. “I say honestly – I’m not a politician. A leader? I hope that (I am that), yes.”

“ROLE MODEL”

Gantz, who is married with four children, has acknowledged his easy-going appeal, telling reporters on Wednesday that he aspired to enter a “good, desirable unity government, so the country can relax a little”.

But he has also shown steel. He launched his political career earlier this year with a bombastic ad campaign that claimed credit for hundreds of “terrorist” kills in Gaza – a reference to wars he oversaw against Hamas Islamists, and whose civilian Palestinian toll drew international condemnation.

Indeed, as Israelis voted on Tuesday, a Dutch Palestinian who lost six relatives to Israeli forces in Gaza in 2014 sought war crimes damages against Gantz at The Hague. Gantz fired back defiantly that Israel has “the most moral army in the world”.

But in making Blue and White Israel’s largest party in parliament – just edging past Likud, according to near-complete results – many Israelis evidently felt overtaxed by more than a decade of Netanyahu rule.

Netanyahu, Israel’s longest-serving leader, faces possible indictment in three corruption cases in which he denies any wrongdoing. During his decade in power, internal divisions and diplomatic stalemate with the Palestinians have deepened.

“When I look at Gantz, I see someone I can trust, who is honest and sincere. He is a role model,” Tami Golan, a 46-year-old Tel Aviv property manager, told Reuters.

“He gives me hope we can be united as a country,” the mother of two said.

Netanyahu has accused Gantz of being gunshy when it came to a potential military confrontation with arch-foe Iran. Gantz says that he prepared a plan for attacking Iranian nuclear sites but that it was Netanyahu who failed to green-light it.

As top general, Gantz says, he was guided by his late mother, a Holocaust survivor. While she supported Israel’s fight against Hamas, he recounted in later media interviews, she exhorted him to “keep the food coming in” to impoverished Gaza.

Among factors that could decide if Gantz forms the next government, assuming a partnership with Netanyahu does not materialize, is whether he gets a nod from a party list that represents Israel’s Arab minority.

While some Arab politicians have voiced misgivings about Gantz’s record in uniform, others have hinted they may grudgingly back him as an antidote to Netanyahu.

The Palestinians have not ruled Gantz out as peace partner.

“We do respect (the) democratic outcome of elections in Israel. Whoever will form the government – we are ready to sit with him or her to restart the negotiations,” Palestinian Foreign Minister Riyad al-Maliki said at a news conference in Oslo on Wednesday.

(Writing by Dan Williams; Additional reporting by Nerijus Adomaitis in Oslo, Editing by William Maclean)

Israel’s Netanyahu fails to win majority in close election

By Jeffrey Heller

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu failed to win a ruling majority in an election that produced a virtual tie between his right-wing bloc and a center-left grouping that would be led by former military chief Benny Gantz.

The outcome, according to almost complete results published on Wednesday, dealt a new blow to Israel’s longest-serving leader who was already weakened by the inability to put together an administration after an inconclusive election in April.

But with coalition-building again key to forming a government, it could be days or even weeks before it becomes clear whether the wily politician hailed by supporters as “King Bibi” has been dethroned after a decade in power.

With Israeli media reporting more than 90 percent of votes counted in Tuesday’s election, the bloc led by Netanyahu’s Likud party was more or less even with a likely grouping headed by Gantz’s centrist Blue and White party.

A Likud-led bloc looked poised to control 55 of parliament’s 120 seats, with 56 going to a center-left alliance, numbers falling short of a majority government of 61 lawmakers.

A Likud spokesman said the leaders of right-wing factions met Netanyahu at the prime minister’s office on Wednesday and pledged to work with him to form the next government.

The ballot’s wildcard, former Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman, emerged as a likely kingmaker as head of the secular-nationalist Yisrael Beitenu party, projected to capture nine seats.

Lieberman has been pushing for a unity government comprised of the biggest parties. He declined to back Netanyahu’s bid to form a narrow right-wing and religious coalition after the April election, bringing about Tuesday’s unprecedented repeat vote.

Netanyahu, who made his close relationship with U.S. President Donald Trump a main selling point in his campaign, has made no claim of victory or concession of defeat, and he planned to address Likud party legislators later in the day.

Some of the party’s leaders issued nearly identical statements expressing their allegiance to Netanyahu.

“He remains party chairman and its candidate to continue as prime minister,” said Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz of Likud.

Netanyahu, 69, appeared fatigued and hoarse in a 3 a.m. election night speech to party faithful earlier on Wednesday in which he said he intended to form a “Zionist government”, without Arab parties that could lend support to Gantz.

CONSULTATIONS

Once the last votes are tallied, Israeli President Reuven Rivlin will consult with leaders of parties that won parliamentary representation about whom to tap to try to form a government. The nominee would then have up to 42 days to do so.

Gantz has not ruled out a unity administration with Likud but has said Blue and White would not join such a government if it included Netanyahu, citing looming corruption charges against the prime minister, who has denied any wrongdoing.

In a further complication, Lieberman has rejected any alliance that includes ultra-Orthodox parties – Netanyahu’s traditional partners.

Lieberman, a Jewish settler and immigrant from the former Soviet Union, had focused his campaign on weakening the power rabbis and religious politicians have on everyday life in Israel, such as ultra-Orthodox control of the administration of marriage and divorce.

Campaigns run by Likud and Blue and White pointed to only narrow differences on many important issues: the regional struggle against Iran, the Palestinian conflict, relations with the United States and the economy.

An end to the Netanyahu era would be unlikely to bring about a significant change in policy on hotly disputed issues in the peace process with the Palestinians that collapsed five years ago.

Three corruption investigations and the Israeli attorney general’s announced intention to charge him with fraud and bribery have also chipped away at Netanyahu’s seeming invincibility.

Netanyahu can argue at a pre-trial hearing in October against indictment. But an election loss could leave him more at risk of prosecution in the graft cases, without the shield of parliamentary immunity that his current political allies had promised to seek for him.

(Reporting by Jeffrey Heller, Dan Williams, Maayan Lubell and Stephen Farrell in Jerusalem and Akram El-Satarri in Gaza; Editing by Timothy Heritage; ((jeffrey.heller@thomsonreuters.com; +97226322202)

Explainer: Israel’s election – will Netanyahu survive?

By Maayan Lubell

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Israelis vote on Tuesday for the second time in less than six months in an election that could see Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu win a record fifth term – or end his decade-long dominance of Israeli politics.

He faces formidable challengers to his reign and, after the vote, possible criminal charges in three corruption cases.

The last polls taken before election day show a race that is too close to call. They predict Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud party tied with the centrist Blue and White, with neither securing an outright majority.

However, about 10 parties are likely to win parliament seats. The polls also show increasing support for a right-wing, pro-Netanyahu bloc of factions that could hand him a victory.

Here are a number of possible scenarios for how the election could play out:

1. NETANYAHU WINS CONTROL OF MAJORITY OF KNESSET SEATS

Likud, together with the three right-wing and religious parties that have already declared their support for him, win a majority. With at least 61 lawmakers, Netanyahu would have little trouble assembling a coalition similar to his outgoing cabinet, which supported his hawkish position on Iran and the 2015 nuclear deal, and took a tough stance on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In the run-up to the election Netanyahu said he would annex the Jordan Valley and all the settlements Israel has built in the occupied West Bank – land the Palestinians seek for a state. Such a move would delight Netanyahu’s far-right allies.

2. NO CLEAR WINNER AND NETANYAHU UNITY GOVERNMENT

After election day, Israel’s president consults with party leaders, asking them who they would support for prime minister. President Reuven Rivlin then asks the candidate he believes has the best chance to try to form a government. Netanyahu had his opportunity after the previous election in April, but failed within the allocated 42 days. Rather than risk Rivlin appointing someone else to try, Netanyahu opted for a second election.

If he is again chosen, and again faces a stalemate, Netanyahu could go outside his bloc of right-wing and Jewish religious parties to form a so-called “national unity” government with those who are not his natural allies.

That would likely mean his strongest rival, Benny Gantz, leader of the centrist Blue and White. But Gantz has said he would not join a Netanyahu-led government, citing possible corruption indictments against Netanyahu. But Israeli politics are famously fluid, with ever-shifting fealties.

3. NO CLEAR WINNER, CENTER-RIGHT GOVERNMENT FORMED WITHOUT NETANYAHU

If Netanyahu again fails to form a government, his own party could oust him to pave the way for a governing coalition between Likud and Gantz’s Blue and White, leaving Netanyahu in the political wilderness.

So far, no one in Likud has publicly broached such an idea. That could change if Netanyahu comes up short in coalition talks.

4. NETANYAHU CLEARLY DEFEATED, CENTER-LEFT GOVERNMENT

If the center and left-wing parties garner a majority in parliament, Gantz would head a government that could include his own party as well as the Labor Party and the newly-formed, environmentalist and secularist Democratic Camp, without needing an alliance with the right. It would be the first time since the 1990s that the left controlled parliament. But with an electorate shifting steadily toward the right, polls are not showing much likelihood of such a scenario.

However, if a left-leaning coalition were ultimately formed, it would be likely to pursue peace talks with the Palestinians and be more open to concessions as part of a lasting peace accord. It could also be more accepting of the nuclear deal struck between world powers and Iran.

5. NO CLEAR WINNER, NEW ELECTIONS

If no candidate can form a government, Israel would head to another snap election. But lawmakers are likely to do all they can to avoid a third this year.

HOW DOES THE ISRAELI ELECTION WORK?

The 120 Knesset (parliament) seats are allocated by proportional representation to party lists. In order to win seats, a party must get at least 3.25 percent of the national vote, equivalent to 4 seats. In the election in April, Likud and Blue and White came out on top, tied at 35 seats each. No one party has ever won an outright majority of the 120-seat Knesset in 71 years of nationhood. This makes post-election coalitions the key to victory, and negotiations can stretch on for weeks.

WHO’S THE KINGMAKER?

According to the polls, it is Avigdor Lieberman, Israel’s hawkish ex-defense minister. Polls suggest the ultra-nationalist settler will double his seats from five to about 10. Lieberman, head of the Israel Beitenu party, has said he would only join a unity government comprised of Likud and Blue and White.

However, Lieberman is something of a wild card and has made unpredictable moves in the past.

WHAT ABOUT NETANYAHU’S LEGAL WOES?

Israel’s attorney-general, who has announced his intention to indict Netanyahu in three corruption investigations, is expected to decide whether to formally charge him by the end of 2019 after a pre-trial hearing in October, during which Netanyahu, who denies wrongdoing, can argue against indictment.

A majority in the Knesset could grant Netanyahu immunity from prosecution until the end of his term. Some of his prospective allies signaled they would support such a move, but it would probably draw a public outcry and legal challenges at the Supreme Court. Even if indicted, Netanyahu would not be under strict legal obligation to step down. His right-wing and religious allies are not expected to pressure him to resign, even if he is charged.

WHAT ABOUT TRUMP’S PEACE PLAN

Netanyahu has said he expects U.S. President Donald Trump to release his long-delayed plan for Israeli-Palestinian peace soon after the election. If Netanyahu wins and forms a right-wing cabinet, he would have a hard time getting his far-right allies to sign on to any peace plan involving concessions to the Palestinians. This could either destabilize the government or bury the Trump plan. A cabinet with Gantz in it would likely be more open to negotiations with the Palestinians.

(Writing by Maayan Lubell; Editing by Jeffrey Heller and Angus MacSwan)

Israel’s president starts consultations on prime minister nomination

FILE PHOTO: Israeli President Reuven Rivlin talks during a press conference at the Presidential Palace in Nicosia, Cyprus February 12, 2019. REUTERS/Yiannis Kourtoglou

By Jeffrey Heller

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Israel’s president began post-election consultations on Monday with political parties that will lead to his appointment of a candidate to form a government.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s nomination seemed virtually ensured after his right-wing Likud won the largest number of parliamentary seats in the April 9 ballot, and his closest rival, Benny Gantz of the centrist Blue and White party, conceded defeat.

President Reuven Rivlin said he would announce his choice on Wednesday after meeting with all of the parties that captured seats in the 120-member Knesset.

Under Israeli law, after consultations with the parties the president taps a legislator whom he believes has the best chance of forming a government, delegating 28 days, with a two-week extension if necessary, to complete the task.

Netanyahu said he intends to build a coalition with five far-right, right-wing and ultra-Orthodox Jewish parties that would give a Likud-led government 65 seats, four more than the outgoing administration he heads.

All of those parties have now said they will back Netanyahu, with the last to hold out, former Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman of the ultranationalist Yisrael Beitenu party, pledging support late on Monday.

“The country has decided and we need to honour the decision,” Lieberman said in a speech to party supporters. “Tomorrow at the president’s, we will recommend Benjamin Netanyahu as the candidate to form the government.”

Gantz, a former military chief of staff whose party won 35 parliamentary seats, would likely be next in line to try to put together a government if Netanyahu fails.

For the first time, Rivlin’s consultations with the parties were being broadcast live as part of what he described as a display of transparency in what has historically been a closed-door process in Israel.

At the meeting with Likud representatives, Culture Minister Miri Regev noted Netanyahu had won re-election despite Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit’s announcement in February that he plans to charge the prime minister in three graft cases.

Netanyahu has denied any wrongdoing. He can still argue, at a pre-trial hearing with Mandelblit whose date has not been set, against the filing of bribery and fraud charges against him.

The Israeli leader is under no legal obligation to resign if indicted.

(Reporting by Jeffrey Heller; Editing by David Holmes/Mark Heinrich)

Israelis go to polls to decide on Netanyahu’s record reign

Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu casts his vote with his wife Sara during Israel's parliamentary election in Jerusalem April 9, 2019. Ariel Schalit/Pool via REUTERS

By Dan Williams and Ari Rabinovitch

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Israelis began voting on Tuesday in an election that could hand right-wing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu a record fifth term or see him dethroned by an ex-general who has pledged clean government and social cohesion.

During the campaign leading up to polling day, the rival parties waged a vitriolic online battle, accusing each other of corruption, fostering bigotry and being soft on security.

Netanyahu’s closest rival in the campaign was Benny Gantz, a former chief of the armed forces. Gantz’s centrist Blue and White party, which includes other former generals, has challenged Netanyahu’s hitherto unrivalled national security credentials.

After an election eve visit to the Western Wall, Netanyahu, 69, voted at a polling station in Jerusalem on Tuesday morning, accompanied by his wife, Sara.

“This is truly the essence of democracy and we should be blessed with it,” he said, shaking hands with election officials and posing for selfies. “With God’s help the State of Israel will prevail. Thank you very much. Go to vote.”

Casting his vote in Rosh Ha’ayin near Tel Aviv, Gantz, 59, said: “This is a day of hope, a day of unity. I look into everyone’s eyes and know that we can connect.”

After the election, Israel’s president, Reuven Rivlin, will consult the leaders of every party represented in the Knesset and select the person he believes has the best chance of forming a government.

Polling stations opened at 7 a.m. (0400 GMT) across the country and will close at 10 p.m. (1900 GMT).

But the victor may not be decided immediately. No party has ever won an outright majority in the 120-seat parliament, meaning days or even weeks of coalition negotiations lie ahead.

One factor may be the turnout of voters from Israel’s 21 percent Arab minority. Many were angered by Israel’s nation-state law, passed in 2018, which declared that only Jews have the right of self-determination in the country. Netanyahu supported the legislation.

Voting in a predominantly Arab neighborhood in the northern Israeli city of Haifa, Arab legislator Ayman Odeh, who heads the Hadash party, said that engagement was key to bringing about political changes that would benefit the Arab community.

“We have to vote … we need to come in droves by train, bus, car and any other way to vote and make a crucial contribution to topple the right-wing government, and especially Benjamin Netanyahu,” he said.

“It is very important that Arabs vote for the party that represents their values 100 percent, not 80 or 40 percent like other parties,” he said. Some Arabs have indicated they will vote for left-wing or centrist Israeli parties instead of party lists dominated by Arab candidates.

According to figures released by Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics, Israel’s roughly 9 million population included 1.9 million Arabs at the start of 2019. Most were Muslims, Christians or Druze. Jews made up 74.3 percent of the population.

OPINION DIVIDED

Voting at a polling station in Rosh Ha’ayin near Tel Aviv, gynecologist Yaron Zalel, 64, said he supported Gantz.

“Netanyahu did a lot of great things for Israel, really, a lot of great things. But he is 13 years in power and enough is enough,” he said.

“He has had enough, he did enough. Now when he feels his earth, the political earth, is shaking, he is destroying everything. This has to be stopped. I am here for my kids and the next generations. There is no one who can’t be replaced.”

Backing Netanyahu was another voter at the same polling station, Avi Gur, 65, a lecturer at Ariel University in a settlement in the Israeli-occupied West Bank.

“Very excited, very excited. I hope that rightism will win,” he said, adding that the Likud leader was “the best prime minister there has ever been” in Israel.

“We are leading in high tech, we are leading in security, we are leading in the economy now. That’s good.”

In Jerusalem, Ronza Barakat, a librarian belonging to Israel’s Arab minority, said she backed the left-wing Meretz party.

“I voted for them hoping for change, a change in the racism that exists here,” she said. “We live together in a place of peace, why should hate exist between people?”

With little policy daylight between the two main candidates on issues such as Iran and relations with the Palestinians, much of the voting will be guided by judgments on character and personality.

CAMPAIGN RHETORIC

Netanyahu casts himself as the victim of media bias and judicial overreach, Gantz as a salve for Israel’s religiously and ethnically riven society and its ties with liberal Jews abroad.

But the distinctions between the leading parties in Israel were not as clear as they were in past decades, said Nabil Shaath, a veteran adviser to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.

“There were times when elections were important,” he said on Monday. “But now, what are you talking about? It’s the right, and then further to the right and then the extreme right and then further to the extreme right. There is really no left left in Israel.”

(Writing by Dan Williams; Additional reporting by Rami Ayyub in Rosh Ha’ayin; Ron Bousso and Rawan Sheikh Ahmad in Haifa; Rahaf Ruby and Stephen Farrell in Jerusalem; Editing by Larry King)

Israeli ex-general, polling closest to Netanyahu, joins 2019 election race

FILE PHOTO: Israeli military chief Lieutenant-General Benny Gantz attends a news conference in Tel Aviv, Israel July 28, 2014. REUTERS/Nir Elias/File Photo

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – A former Israeli armed forces chief who opinion polls show poses the toughest challenge to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s bid for reelection next year formally established a political party on Thursday.

Details about Benny Gantz’s Israel Resilience Party, leaked to local media after it was registered, gave little indication of its ideological tilt.

Along with preserving Israel as “a Jewish and democratic country”, the party pledged unspecified changes to priorities in national security and the economy.

Polling has predicted an easy win for Netanyahu in the April 9 election, with his rightist Likud party taking around 30 of parliament’s 120 seats and on course to form a right-wing coalition government similar to the current cabinet.

The surveys, published after Netanyahu announced on Monday an election some seven months before one was due by law, gave second place to a then-hypothetical Gantz party. The polls forecast it would take around 15 seats.

Netanyahu is running for a fifth term under the shadow of three corruption investigations in which police have recommended his indictment. He has denied any wrongdoing.

Israel’s attorney-general has still to decide whether to charge Netanyahu and it is unclear whether he will make his announcement before the election.

Should Gantz emerge as a center-left candidate, that could work in Netanyahu’s favor by further fracturing an already disparate opposition bloc.

Gantz, 59, became Israel’s top general in 2011 after stints as commander of forces on the combustible northern frontier with Syria and Lebanon and as military attache in Washington. During his four-year term, he oversaw two wars in the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip.

(Writing by Dan Williams; Editing by Jeffrey Heller and Gareth Jones)