Israel’s Netanyahu down but not out after failing to form government

Israel’s Netanyahu down but not out after failing to form government
By Jeffrey Heller

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – For the first time in a decade, someone other than Benjamin Netanyahu will be asked to form a government in Israel.

The 70-year-old prime minister has called two elections this year, has twice been given the chance by the president to put together a ruling coalition, and has twice failed.

President Reuven Rivlin will on Wednesday turn to Netanyahu’s centrist rival Benny Gantz, leaving Netanyahu even more vulnerable in his fight for political survival.

But although he has failed, Gantz – a former general and political novice – also has no clear path to success.

Here are some of the possible scenarios, including even a third parliamentary election in less than a year, after two inconclusive elections in April and September.

WHY IS ISRAELI POLITICS IN DEADLOCK?

Shortly after the Sept. 17 election ended in stalemate, Rivlin gave Netanyahu 28 days to put together a governing coalition.

During that period, which expires on Wednesday, Israel’s longest-serving prime minister persuaded only 55 of parliament’s 120 members, including his traditional far-right and ultra-Orthodox Jewish allies, to join his right-wing Likud Party in a government.

Having fallen six seats short of a ruling majority, Netanyahu “returned” his mandate to the president, and a spokesman for Rivlin said Gantz would now get his chance.

One way out of the stalemate would be for the two largest parties, Likud and Gantz’s new Blue and White party, to form a “national unity” government.

Early talks centered on the possibility of a rotating premiership but led nowhere. Gantz, a former armed forces chief, refused to join a government led by Netanyahu, citing looming indictments against the prime minister in three corruption cases in which Netanyahu has denied any wrongdoing.

Gantz also said he wants a “liberal” government, shorthand for one that does not include Netanyahu’s religious partners.

HAS THIS HAPPENED BEFORE?

The last time anyone other than Netanyahu was asked to form a government in Israel was in 2008 when Tzipi Livni, of the now-defunct Kadima party, was given the chance and failed.

That led to an election in 2009 which was won by Netanyahu. Livni never returned to front-line politics, a precedent that is not lost on Netanyahu.

WHAT HAPPENS NEXT?

After receiving the formal nomination from Rivlin on Wednesday, Gantz will have 28 days to build a coalition. As things stand now, he has the endorsement of 54 lawmakers, seven short of a parliamentary majority.

But 10 of the those 54 legislators belong to a four-party Arab alliance. No party drawn from Israel’s 21% Arab minority has ever been invited to join an Israeli government or has sought to serve in one.

Without a deal with Netanyahu, Gantz could seek to form a minority government, with Arab lawmakers’ backing from the sidelines. But that is a big political risk in a country where Arab citizens’ loyalty has been hotly debated.

Arab lawmakers would be likely to face criticism from within their own community for propping up an Israeli government’s policies towards what many regard as their fellow Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza.

AND IF GANTZ ALSO COMES UP SHORT?

A three-week period would ensue in which 61 lawmakers can ask the president to assign the coalition-building task to any legislator – Netanyahu, Gantz or another. If no such request is made in that time, parliament dissolves itself and an election is called – political pundits say March 17 is a possible date.

That could give Netanyahu another chance at the ballot box, barring a Likud rebellion against him.

WHAT ABOUT NETANYAHU’S LEGAL TROUBLES?

The deck could be reshuffled once Attorney-General Avichai Mandelblit announces whether he will follow through with his plan to indict Netanyahu in three graft investigations. His final decision is widely expected by the end of the year.

Netanyahu faces no legal requirement to leave government if indicted, but criminal charges against him – and their degree of severity – could further weaken him politically.

Netanyahu could face fraud and breach of trust charges in all three cases, and bribery charges in one.

ARE THERE ANY WILDCARDS?

Avigdor Lieberman, a former Netanyahu ally and ex-defense minister, heads the ultranationalist Yisrael Beitenu which won eight parliamentary seats in last month’s election. He has remained on the fence so far, citing policy differences with Likud’s ultra-Orthodox backers and Blue and White’s left-wing allies.

He effectively prevented Netanyahu from building a ruling coalition after this year’s first election, boosted his standing in the second and could be a kingmaker in the third.

(Editing by Timothy Heritage and Janet Lawrence)

Israel’s Netanyahu gives up effort to form new government

FILE PHOTO: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends the swearing-in ceremony of the 22nd Knesset, the Israeli parliament, in Jerusalem October 3, 2019. REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun/File Photo

Israel’s Netanyahu gives up effort to form new government
JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Benjamin Netanyahu gave up his effort to form a new government on Monday after failing to secure a majority coalition, creating an opportunity for centrist rival Benny Gantz to replace Israel’s longest serving prime minister.

Netanyahu, who heads the right-wing Likud party, said he had been unable to form a government following an election in September, and was returning the mandate back to Israel’s president, Reuven Rivlin. Rivlin said he intends to task Gantz with the job of putting together a new government.

“In the past weeks I made every effort to bring Benny Gantz to the negotiating table, every effort to establish a broad national government, every effort to avoid another election,” said Netanyahu, who turned 70 on Monday.

Gantz also has no clear path to a majority, and should he come up short, it would almost certainly lead to another general election, the third since April. He will have 28 days to entice potential allies.

Gantz’s Blue and White party said in a statement it was “determined to form a liberal unity government.”

Netanyahu, in power for the past decade and 13 years in total, has seen his political strength wane as he faces a looming indictment on corruption allegations he denies. Gantz, a former military chief, has pledged not to serve in a government under a premier facing criminal charges.

Likud placed second in the September ballot with 32 seats in the 120-member parliament, behind 33 for Blue and White.

(Reporting by Ari Rabinovitch, Editing by Franklin Paul, Philippa Fletcher, Peter Graff and Cynthia Osterman)

Explainer: Israel’s election – will Netanyahu survive?

By Maayan Lubell

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Israelis vote next week 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 new and formidable challengers to his reign and, after the vote, possible criminal charges in three corruption cases. Recent polls have shown Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud party tied with the centrist Blue and White. They also show that neither party will secure an outright majority.

Here are a number of possible scenarios for how the Sept. 17 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 relatively little trouble assembling a coalition similar to his outgoing cabinet, which supported his hawkish position on Iran and its 2015 nuclear deal and took a tough stance on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In the run-up to the election, Netanyahu has vowed to annex the settlements Israel has built in the occupied West Bank – land the Palestinians want 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 and 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 looming 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 again 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. But that could change if Netanyahu again 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 Labour 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 although, 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 likely pursue peace talks with the Palestinians and be more open to concessions toward them 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 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 (parliament) 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’s Avigdor Lieberman, Israel’s hawkish ex-defense minister. Polls suggest the ultra-nationalist settler will double his seats from five to around 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. Yet 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 “DEAL OF THE CENTURY”?

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 give-and-take negotiations with the Palestinians.

(Writing by Maayan Lubell; Editing by Jeffrey Heller and Mark Heinrich)

Israel’s Netanyahu wins re-election with parliamentary majority: tally

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gestures after he speaks following the announcement of exit polls in Israel's parliamentary election at the party headquarters in Tel Aviv, Israel April 10, 2019. REUTERS/Ammar Awad

By Jeffrey Heller and Maayan Lubell

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu secured a clear path to re-election on Wednesday, with religious-rightist parties set to hand him a parliamentary majority despite a close contest against his main centrist challenger, a vote tally showed.

With more than 97 percent of votes counted, Netanyahu’s conservative Likud party looked likely to muster enough support to control 65 of the Knesset’s 120 seats and be named to head the next coalition government. It would be his record fifth term as premier.

President Reuven Rivlin said on Twitter he would begin meeting next week with political parties that won parliamentary seats to hear who they support for prime minister.

At the sessions, which Rivlin said would be broadcast live “to ensure transparency”, he will then pick a party leader to try to form a coalition, giving the candidate 28 days to do so, with a two-week extension if needed.

The close and often vitriolic contest was widely seen in Israel as a referendum on Netanyahu’s character and record in the face of corruption allegations. He faces possible indictment in three graft cases, and has denied wrongdoing in all of them.

Despite that, Netanyahu gained four seats compared to his outgoing coalition government, according to a spreadsheet published by the Central Elections Committee of parties that garnered enough votes to enter the next parliament.

“It is a night of colossal victory,” the 69-year-old Netanyahu told cheering supporters in a late-night speech at Likud headquarters in Tel Aviv after Tuesday’s vote.

“He’s a magician!” the crowd chanted as fireworks flared and Netanyahu kissed his wife Sara.

Tel Aviv Stock Exchange main indexes were up nearly 1 percent in late trading on Wednesday, displaying confidence in a veteran prime minister who has overseen a humming economy and blunted various security threats, including from Syria.

His challenger, the new Blue and White party of ex-army chief Benny Gantz, claimed a more modest victory after winning a 35-seat tie with Likud. Unless he reverses on campaign pledges to shun Netanyahu, and joins him in a broad coalition, Gantz looked destined to lead a center-left parliamentary opposition.

“The skies may look overcast…but they cannot conceal the sun of hope that we have brought to the Israeli people and society,” Gantz, 59, wrote in an open letter to supporters.

Should Netanyahu retain the helm, he will become the longest-serving Israeli prime minister in July, overtaking the country’s founding father, David Ben-Gurion. That could be scuppered if criminal charges are filed and force his removal.

IMMUNITY?

An indictment decision would follow a review hearing where Netanyahu can be expected to argue he should be spared in the national interest. Some analysts predict he may try to pass a law granting himself immunity, as a sitting leader, from trial.

During the campaign, the rival parties accused each other of corruption, fostering bigotry and being soft on security.

Netanyahu highlighted his close relationship with U.S. President Donald Trump, who delighted Israelis and angered Palestinians by recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital in 2017 and moving the U.S. Embassy to the holy city last May.

Two weeks before the election, Trump signed a proclamation, with Netanyahu at his side at the White House, recognizing Israeli sovereignty over the occupied Golan Heights captured from Syria in the 1967 Middle East war.

In a rare turn during the race toward the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Netanyahu further alarmed Palestinians by pledging to annex Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank if re-elected. Palestinians seek a state there and in the Gaza Strip, with East Jerusalem as its capital.

This pre-election promise from Netanyahu was widely seen as an attempt to draw right-wing votes rather than a change of policy. But with Trump’s moves on Jerusalem and the Golan, the prime minister may feel emboldened to advocate annexation.

Commenting on the election, Palestinian chief negotiator Saeb Erekat said: “Israelis have voted to preserve the status quo. They have said no to peace and yes to the occupation”.

The last round of U.S.-brokered peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians collapsed in 2014.

Trump is expected to release his administration’s long-awaited Middle East peace plan after the election. If it includes Israeli concessions to the Palestinians, Netanyahu’s probable far-right coalition allies will likely object.

(Additional reporting by Rami Ayyub in Rosh Ha’ayin, Ron Bousso and Rawan Sheikh Ahmad in Haifa, Rahaf Ruby, Stephen Farrell, Dan Williams and Maayan Lubell in Jerusalem; Editing by Angus MacSwan/Mark Heinrich)

Israel’s election explained: first the vote, then the kingmaking

A man holds a Likud election campaign poster depicting Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as he stands behind a stall at Mahane Yehuda Market in Jerusalem April 8, 2019. REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Israelis vote in a parliamentary election on Tuesday, choosing among party lists of candidates to serve in the 120-seat Knesset.

No party has won a majority of seats since Israel’s first election in 1949. Following are questions and answers about the vote and what sort of coalition negotiations could emerge:

WHAT HAPPENS AFTER POLLS CLOSE?

Israel’s major television stations and news websites issue exit polls when voting ends at 10 p.m. (1900 GMT) on Tuesday, estimating how many parliamentary seats each party has won, and then the coalition calculations begin.

WHO’S AHEAD IN OPINION POLLS?

Final polls in the campaign, on Friday, showed that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had fallen behind his main challenger, centrist Benny Gantz, but still has an easier path to form a government that would keep him in power for a record fifth term.

HOW DOES COALITION-BUILDING WORK?

Israel’s president, Reuven Rivlin, consults with the leaders of every party represented in parliament as to their preference for prime minister, and then chooses the legislator who he believes has the best chance of putting together a coalition. The nominee, who does not necessarily have to be the head of the party that won the most votes, has up to 42 days to form a government before the president asks another politician to try.

WHAT SORT OF COALITION COULD BE FORMED?

Netanyahu will likely seek a coalition, similar to his current government, with ultranationalist and Jewish Orthodox parties. Gantz, who heads the centrist Blue and White Party, will likely win the support of center-left and left-wing parties, but polls predict he will fall short of a governing majority in parliament.

An election campaign billboard depicting Benny Gantz, leader of Blue and White party, is seen in Tel Aviv, Israel April 8, 2019. REUTERS/Amir Cohen

An election campaign billboard depicting Benny Gantz, leader of Blue and White party, is seen in Tel Aviv, Israel April 8, 2019. REUTERS/Amir Cohen

WHAT ARE THE UNEXPECTED FACTORS TO WATCH?

A far-right politician, Moshe Feiglin, has been drawing unexpectedly strong support, opinion polls show, with a libertarian platform advocating the legalization of marijuana, free-market policies and annexation of the occupied West Bank. He could be a kingmaker.

In Israeli politics, a “unity government” can never be ruled out if the path to a right- or center-left-led coalition proves difficult – even though Gantz has pledged not to serve with Netanyahu, citing corruption allegations against the Likud party leader, who has denied those accusations.

(Reporting by Jeffrey Heller; Editing by Hugh Lawson)

Palestinians warm to Netanyahu rival, citing signs of compromise

FILE PHOTO: Benny Gantz, a former Israeli armed forces chief and head of Israel Resilience party, delivers his first political speech at the party campaign launch in Tel Aviv, Israel January 29, 2019. REUTERS/Amir Cohen/File Photo

By Stephen Farrell and Dan Williams

RAMALLAH, West Bank/JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Palestinians warmed on Wednesday to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s toughest election rival, a former top general who said Israel should not maintain its dominion over them.

With both a general election and the unveiling of a U.S. peace initiative on the horizon, the centrist candidate, Benny Gantz, has been signaling an openness to territorial compromise in the occupied West Bank. That marks a contrast with the right-wing Netanyahu, who has ruled out withdrawing settlements.

The secret U.S. proposal for breaking a five-year diplomatic deadlock is widely expected to be unveiled after Israel’s April 9 ballot. Pollsters see Netanyahu’s conservative Likud party winning around 30 of parliament’s 120 seats, setting him up for a fifth term.

In an interview on Wednesday with Israel’s Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper, Gantz was asked about prospects for accommodation with the Palestinians, who seek a state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, with East Jerusalem as its capital.

“We need to find a way not to have dominion over other people,” Gantz said.

Gantz, whose new Resilience party is gaining ground against Netanyahu’s Likud with as many as 24 projected seats, has said he wanted to strengthen settlement blocs in the West Bank.

But he has not mentioned what might happen in any future peace deal to isolated settlements that are not incorporated into Israel if Palestinians are given a separate state.

Nabil Abu Rudeineh, a spokesman for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, praised “the signs coming from Gantz about settlements”, calling them a step in the right direction should he win the election and prove “willing and ready” for peace.

“It’s encouraging, if he succeeds and he sticks to this opinion,” Abu Rudeineh told Reuters.

Most world powers consider Israeli settlements on land captured in a 1967 war to be illegal under the Geneva conventions. Israel disputes this, citing historical ties to the land, and has expanded the settlement population steadily, including during the past decade under Netanyahu.

Palestinians say settlements must be removed from their future state in any final agreement, although some could be ceded to Israel as part of an agreed swap for other land. The last peace talks collapsed in 2014, in part over the issue of settlements, and Abbas is boycotting the Trump administration, accusing it of being biased toward Israel.

In a statement, Likud said Gantz was planning to form a “leftist government” sympathetic to the Palestinians.

Gantz’ Resilience party said “no unilateral decision will be made on settlement evacuation” and that he would “maintain … non-negotiable security protections”.

Netanyahu cites the example of Gaza — where Israel unilaterally pulled out its settlements in 2005 and the Islamist group Hamas soon took control — as proof that removing settlements from the West Bank would be dangerous.

Gantz described the Gaza withdrawal as well executed, telling Yedioth: “We need to take the lessons and apply them elsewhere.”

The Trump administration has wavered over whether it would endorse a Palestinian state, saying the final outcome will be up to the sides to determine, but both may need to compromise.

(Additional reporting by Ali Sawafta; Writing by Dan Williams; Editing by Peter Graff)