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)

‘King Bibi’ fights for his political life in Israeli election

By Jeffrey Heller

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Twenty years after Benjamin Netanyahu’s first term as Israel’s prime minister ended, the man hailed by supporters as “King Bibi” is again fighting for his political survival in a rerun election.

Opinion polls predict a close race when Israel goes to the polls on Tuesday, five months after an inconclusive election in which Netanyahu declared himself the winner but failed to put together a coalition government.

“A Likud victory is possible but it’s hanging by a thread,” said Abraham Diskin, political science professor at Jerusalem’s Hebrew University, referring to Netanyahu’s right-wing party.

An end to the Netanyahu era after his 10 successive years in power would be unlikely to lead to a dramatic change in Israel’s policy on hotly disputed issues in a peace process with the Palestinians that collapsed five years ago.

Relations with the United States would be likely to remain on track, despite Netanyahu’s close relationship with President Donald Trump.

Likud is running neck-and-neck with the centrist Blue and White party led by former armed forces chief Benny Gantz, who has focused heavily on looming corruption charges Netanyahu faces.

But Netanyahu’s political fate could ultimately end up in the hands of the far-right Yisrael Beitenu headed by former Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman, a potential kingmaker in the coalition-building certain to follow the vote.

After the election in April, Lieberman blocked Netanyahu’s attempts to form a coalition, citing differences with the prime minister’s ultra-Orthodox allies. Opinion polls indicate Yisrael Beitenu will emerge stronger in the new ballot.

ANNEXATION

Netanyahu has campaigned hard to avoid losing power, as he did in 1999 against then-Labour party leader Ehud Barak, appearing in hours of live video question-and-answer sessions on Facebook in recent weeks and dominating the news in Israel.

In a step this week that alarmed Palestinian and other Arab leaders but delighted his core right-wing constituency, Netanyahu announced his intention to annex the Jordan Valley in the occupied West Bank.

It was, Israeli political commentators said, a clear attempt to draw votes away from far-right parties.

Netanyahu hammered home a get-out-the-vote message: Applying Israeli sovereignty to the valley, which Palestinians want as part of a future state, will happen only if Likud emerges from the election as the biggest party in the Knesset (parliament).

In Israel, votes are cast for a party’s list of Knesset candidates. Since no party has ever won a majority of seats on its own, Israel has always been ruled by coalitions, making post-election political bargaining key to determining the ultimate winner.

Netanyahu has burnished a statesman’s image during the campaign, visiting Britain last week for talks with Prime Minister Boris Johnson and U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper, and meeting President Vladimir Putin in Russia on Thursday.

Netanyahu has also showcased his relationship with Trump, featuring posters in which both are shaking hands. But there has been no sign from Trump of a “grand gesture” that could bolster Netanyahu as a candidate.

Shortly before the last election, with the prime minister at his side, Trump signed a proclamation recognizing Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights. Israel captured the strategic area in a 1967 war and annexed it in 1981, moves not accepted by most world powers, who deem it to be occupied Syrian territory.

“NATIONAL UNITY”

The line-up of challengers this time is similar to the one Netanyahu faced in the previous election, with Blue and White his biggest threat.

Blue and White has said it would “strengthen the settlement blocs” in the West Bank, with the Jordan Valley as Israel’s “eastern security border”. But that falls short of an outright commitment to annex the valley, and a party spokesman said a Blue and White-led government would “maintain an open channel” for a peace deal with the Palestinians.

Most of the international community regards the Israeli settlements as illegal, a view that Israel disputes.

The spokesman said the party would seek “the return of bipartisanship to Israel-U.S. relations”, a reference to Netanyahu’s close ties with Trump and his Republican party and sharp differences with the Democrats over issues such as Iran’s nuclear program and Middle East peacemaking.

After an election in Israel, its president gauges, following consultations with all political parties that won parliamentary seats, which legislator stands the best chance of forming a government.

Both Netanyahu and Gantz hope to be tapped, but a photo finish would complicate the picture.

A “national unity” government could avoid or resolve a stalemate if a Likud-led right-wing coalition or a Blue and White-led center-left alliance prove impossible.

Gantz has said his party would not join a government with Netanyahu in it, citing the prime minister’s legal troubles.

If a partnership with Gantz is the only way to stay out of the backbenches, prominent Likud members could try to topple Netanyahu as party leader, some political analysts have said.

Blue and White tied with Likud on 35 seats in the April election, and Gantz is seen by some voters as “Mr Clean”.

“His low-key style and relative ineloquence are for many a modest man’s refreshing antitheses to Bibi’s perceived bluster and soloism. Gantz is seen as balanced, cautious and pragmatic,” said Amotz Asa-El, a research fellow at Jerusalem’s Shalom Hartman Institute.

Two weeks after the election, Israel’s attorney-general will hold a pre-trial hearing in which Netanyahu can argue against his announced intention to file fraud and bribery charges against him in the corruption investigations.

Netanyahu, who has denied any wrongdoing, has said he will not quit as prime minister if indicted, and there is no legal obligation to do so. Allies have said they will press parliament to grant Netanyahu, as a member of the body, immunity from prosecution.

After election night, it could all come down to Yisrael Beitenu’s Lieberman, at odds with Netanyahu’s traditional ultra-Orthodox partners over military conscription exemptions for Jewish seminary students.

Lieberman, whose party is projected to double its April Knesset seat tally to 10, has said Yisrael Beitenu will not join up with a Netanyahu administration after Tuesday’s vote if it includes the religious factions.

Netanyahu’s annexation plans: https://graphics.reuters.com/ISRAEL-ELECTION/0100B2981B3/ISRAEL-ELECTION.jpg

(Additional reporting by Dan Williams and Maayan Lubell, Editing by Timothy Heritage)

Former Netanyahu aide Lieberman could be Israeli kingmaker

By Jeffrey Heller

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – A former nightclub bouncer with a heavy Russian accent, Avigdor Lieberman used to carry a fresh change of shirt for his political boss, Benjamin Netanyahu.

He is now one of Israel’s most prominent politicians and opinion polls suggest he could emerge as a kingmaker after an election on Tuesday, putting him in a position where he could possibly end the prime minister’s decade in power. [nL5N25W3VZ]

After working as an aide to the right-wing Netanyahu, Lieberman quit the Likud Party and formed the far-right Yisrael Beitenu. He then went on to serve in a string of governments, including under Netanyahu, but quit as his defense chief last November in protest at a ceasefire in Gaza.

Since Netanyahu failed to form a coalition government after an election in April, Lieberman, 61, has refocused his political strategy to attract new supporters.

With opinion polls predicting Yisrael Beitenu will double to 10 the number of parliamentary seats it won in the election five months ago, Lieberman could be the linchpin in determining the composition and leadership of the next governing coalition.

It was Lieberman who handed Netanyahu a rare defeat after the April election. Netanyahu needed Yisrael Beignet’s five seats to secure a majority of 61 in the 120-member parliament but Lieberman rejected his approaches.

Lieberman is pushing for a “national unity” government after Tuesday’s poll that would include his own party, Netanyahu’s Likud and its strongest challenger, the centrist Blue and White party, but exclude what he calls “messianic” religious factions.

Where Netanyahu fits in is anyone’s guess. Blue and White’s leader, Benny Gantz, citing looming corruption indictments against the prime minister, says he is open to teaming up with Likud, but not if it is led by Netanyahu.

So far, potential successors to Netanyahu, who has denied wrongdoing in three criminal cases against him, have remained loyal. But no one party has ever won an outright parliamentary majority on its own in Israel and national politics are fluid.

“(Lieberman) has an ability to crown the next prime minister – and he knows it very well,” said Dmitri Doubov, editor in chief of Israel’s Russian-language Channel 9 television.

“I don’t think that he sees himself as the next prime minister but he can set the conditions for the next coalition to define it as he wants, as he sees fit.”

CHANGE OF FOCUS

With campaign billboards reading “Make Israel Normal Again”, Lieberman’s far-right political platform includes support for Jewish settlement in the occupied West Bank.

Most of the international community regards the Israeli settlements as illegal, a view that Israel disputes.

Lieberman, a settler himself who in his younger days also worked as an airport baggage handler, also calls for conscription of ultra-Orthodox Jews into the military.

Unlike other 18-year-old Israeli Jews, Orthodox seminary students are exempt from compulsory service. Lieberman gave his differences with an ultra-Orthodox party over a conscription bill as the reason for refusing to join the coalition Netanyahu had seemed poised to form after the election in April.

Lieberman’s frequent complaints about ultra-Orthodox political power and influence over everyday life in Israel, including the administration of marriage and divorce, have played well with his Russian-speaking immigrants, some of whom are not Jewish according to ritual law.

If the opinion polls showing a surge in support for Yisrael Beitenu are correct, his message is also now resonating with secular Israelis outside his power base.

In the port city of Ashdod, south of Tel Aviv, Jonathan Joseph Motro, a 28-year-old student, said he was looking for a candidate who was right-wing but not in step with the ultra-Orthodox. Lieberman fits the bill, he said.

“I voted Likud for a long time, now I’m voting for Lieberman,” Motro said.

Speaking at a public forum of “influencers” organized by Israel’s Channel 12 TV last week, Lieberman said in his usual deadpan delivery that “there is nothing personal” in his criticism of Netanyahu.

Back in the days of their early relationship, Lieberman would be at Netanyahu’s side during campaigning.

“Lieberman scheduled Netanyahu’s visits to Likud branches around the country, arriving in advance with signs to hang in the hall and a crisp powder-blue shirt for his fastidious boss to change into before his speech, Anshel Pfeffer, author of a Netanyahu biography, wrote in the Haaretz newspaper.

At the Channel 12 event, Lieberman said he did not rule out Netanyahu as a political ally or underestimate a veteran leader hailed by chanting Likud faithful after previous election victories as a “magician”.

“(But) I will not go to a Halacha government,” he said, in a reference to Jewish ritual law and ultra-Orthodox party participation in a coalition.

(Editing by Timothy Heritage)

Christian evangelicals harvest land in settlements Israel hopes to annex

By Maayan Lubell and Elana Ringler

SHILO, West Bank (Reuters) – It’s harvest time in vineyards atop the hills of Shilo settlement in the Israeli-occupied West Bank. But it’s not Jewish settlers picking the grapes, it’s evangelical Christians.

They are volunteers for the devout U.S. evangelical group HaYovel which brings Christians to help Jewish farmers in settlements that Israel has built on land that Palestinians seek for a state.

Evangelicals have been a core support base for U.S. President Donald Trump since the 2016 election. Many are also staunch supporters of Israel, feeling a religious connection with the Jewish people and the Holy Land.

The West Bank holds special importance to evangelicals who see a divine hand in the modern-day return of Jews to a biblical homeland – and who call the territory by its Hebrew Old Testament name, Judea and Samaria.

The founder of HaYovel, Tommy Waller, is fond of quoting a passage from the book of Jeremiah, which reads: “Again I will build thee, and thou shalt be built, O virgin of Israel…Thou shalt yet plant vines upon the mountains of Samaria.”

But that land is also at the heart of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

It is the heartland of what the Palestinians see as a future state, along with East Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip, territories that Israel captured in the 1967 Middle East war.

For the Tennessee-born Waller, helping the Jewish settlers cultivate the land means taking part in the fulfillment of a prophecy. “As a Christian, as a person who believes in the bible, it was an amazing thing to get to a place where my faith was touchable,” Waller said.

“We share a commonality between Christianity and Judaism and that’s our bible, our scripture,” said Waller at a vineyard on the outskirts of Har Bracha, another settlement whose farmers his volunteers assist.

ANNEXATION

Most of the international community regards the Israeli settlements as illegal, a view that Israel disputes.

Israeli hawks, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, claim the West Bank is vital to Israel’s security. Relinquishing it to the Palestinians could put large swaths of Israel under threat of militant attacks, they say. Palestinians say there can be no viable Palestinian state without it.

In the run-up to Israel’s election next Tuesday, Netanyahu has renewed his pledge to annex parts of the West Bank if he wins. [L5N2615TB]

It’s a position that the politically powerful U.S. evangelicals have embraced.

“Evangelicals believe Judea and Samaria is bible land, because it is,” said Mike Evans, the Texas-based founder of ‘Friends of Zion Museum’ which sits in Jerusalem. “Do we think giving up Judea and Samaria is going to bring peace? No way,” said Evans, who is a member of Trump’s Faith Initiative.

The prospect of annexation has alarmed the Palestinians, who fear that Netanyahu is likely to have Trump’s backing.

“We are worried about losing our lands,” said Izzat Qadous, a retired school teacher from the Palestinian village Irak Burin, across the way from Har Bracha.

“The same way they have annexed Jerusalem, they want to annex the West Bank and soon we will hear of Trump acknowledging the annexation of the West Bank.”

About 2.9 million Palestinians live in the West Bank, according to official Palestinian figures and more than 400,000 Israeli settlers live there, according to the Israeli statistics bureau.

Evangelical leaders lobbied Trump earlier in his presidency for his 2017 recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, and his relocation of the U.S. Embassy to the holy city in 2018.

“He (Trump) is rewarding moral clarity and I believe the Jewish people should be rewarded for moral clarity with recognizing more of their land,” said Evans, referring to the West Bank.

“ROCK STAR”

Trump’s administration includes evangelicals at some top positions – his vice president Mike Pence and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who in an interview to the Christian Broadcast Network in March said that “the Lord was at work here” in respect to Trump’s Israel policies.

Evangelical support for Israel goes back decades, with political lobbying, fundraising and organized tours to the Holy Land. But some see the ties growing far stronger under both Trump and Netanyahu.

Hanan Ashrawi, a senior official of the Palestine Liberation Organization, said the evangelical base “has been wielding unprecedented and enormous influence within the United States for the sake of the “fulfillment of the prophecy,” thereby giving Israel a free hand to carry out its most hardline and destructive policies against the Palestinian people.”

Dore Gold, President of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, said Netanyahu began cultivating ties with evangelicals during his first stint as prime minister in the 1990s.

“The Prime Minister has a keen sense of trendlines in the U.S.,” said Gold.

That effort may have paid off. “Benjamin Netanyahu among the evangelicals of the world is a rock star,” Evans said.

Critics, however, say Netanyahu has alienated many liberal American Jews by embracing Christian conservatives. Even in Israel’s settlements, the evangelicals are sometimes greeted with suspicion.

Some Israelis there fear that the Christians may have a missionary agenda – seeking to convert them. Evans said his mission in life is to defend the Jewish people.

Others are nervous about some evangelical readings of the scriptures in which the Jews’ return to the biblical land is instrumental in bringing about the end of the world, at which point those who do not accept Jesus Christ will not be saved.

“These people are pursuing God like we’re pursuing God,” said Waller. “Obviously we have our own messianic belief, but those are future things, in the kingdom to come.”

On the other hand, some settlers see the evangelicals as helping them out in fulfilling their own vision.

Nir Lavi, the owner of Har Bracha winery, says Hayovel’s contribution to his business has been more than financial.

“We are grateful,” said Lavi. “It’s a totally different phase of our own journey – the Jewish people’s redemption in their land.”

(Writing by Maayan Lubell; Editing by Stephen Farrell and Angus MacSwan)

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)

Netanyahu: Iran had secret nuclear weapons development site in Abadeh

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks at a news conference in Jerusalem September 9, 2019. REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Monday that Iran had been developing nuclear weapons at a secret site near the city of Abadeh, but that Tehran destroyed the facility after learning it had been exposed.

It was the first time Netanyahu had identified the site, which, he said, was discovered in a trove of Iranian documents Israel previously obtained and disclosed last year.

“In this site, Iran conducted experiments to develop nuclear weapons,” Netanyahu said in broadcast remarks, showing an aerial picture of several small buildings, including their coordinates, that he said were taken at the Abadeh facility late in June 2019.

“When Iran realized that we uncovered the site, here’s what they did,” he said, showing a picture from a month later in which the buildings no longer appeared. “They destroyed the site. They just wiped it out.”

Netanyahu’s comments followed a Reuters report revealing that the International Atomic Energy Agency found traces of uranium at a different site in Iran that the Israeli leader had first pointed to during a speech last year at the United Nations.

Iran had yet to explain the traces of uranium at that site, though it denies ever having sought a nuclear weapon.

Netanyahu, who strongly opposed a 2015 nuclear deal between Iran and world powers, made the remarks in a televised speech about a week before a general election in Israel in which he is in a tight race to win another term.

“I call on the international community to wake up, to realize that Iran is systematically lying,” Netanyahu said.

“The only way to stop Iran’s march to the bomb, and its aggression in the region, is pressure, pressure and more pressure.”

(Reporting by Ari Rabinovitch,; Editing by Stephen Farrell and Jonathan Oatis)

Netanyahu opposes Iran talks after Trump moots meeting Rouhani

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during a state memorial ceremony at the Tomb of the Patriarchs, a shrine holy to Jews and Muslims, in Hebron in the Israeli-occupied West Bank September 4, 2019. REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun

LONDON (Reuters) – Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu urged world powers on Thursday not to open a dialogue with Iran, after U.S. President Donald Trump said he may meet his Iranian counterpart to resolve a crisis over Tehran’s nuclear project and sanctions against it.

“This is not the time to hold talks with Iran. This is the time to increase the pressure on Iran,” Netanyahu told reporters en route to London, where he was hosted by British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and was later scheduled to confer with U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper.

Netanyahu’s comments marked rare public discord between the right-wing Israeli leader and Trump on the Iranian nuclear issue. Netanyahu had previously counseled France against its own outreach to Iran.

The Israeli leader, who is fighting for his political life in an election on Sept. 17, regularly touts his influence with Western leaders, especially fellow rightwingers such as Trump and Johnson, as vital for Israeli security. His opponents say his closeness to rightwing figures abroad hurts Israel by making support for it a partisan issue in friendly countries.

On Wednesday, Trump left the door open to a possible meeting with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani at the upcoming U.N. General Assembly in New York, saying: “Anything’s possible. They would like to be able to solve their problem.”

Tehran has rejected any negotiations with Washington unless Trump drops sanctions he imposed after quitting the 2015 Iranian nuclear deal, an agreement Netanyahu had savaged as inadequate.

Iran has said that, starting on Friday, it would begin developing centrifuges to speed up the enrichment of uranium, which can produce fuel for power plants or for atomic bombs. The Iranians deny seeking nuclear weapons.

The centrifuge move would be Iran’s latest reduction of its commitments to restrict nuclear projects under the 2015 deal.

Netanyahu called this “another violation, another provocation by Iran, this time in the realm of its quest for nuclear weaponry”.

Meeting Johnson at 10 Downing Street, Netanyahu praised the politically embattled British leader for his “staunch stance against anti-Semitism and … support for Israel’s security”.

“We have the challenge of Iran’s aggression and terrorism, and I’d like to talk to you about how we can work together to counter these things for the benefit of peace,” Netanyahu told Johnson, according to an official Israeli transcript.

Like other European partners to the Iran nuclear deal, Britain was worried by the U.S. withdrawal. Johnson, while openly sympathetic to Israel, wants to preserve a vision of Palestinian statehood that has eroded under Netanyahu’s tenure.

Netanyahu – who has doubled as defense minister for the past 10 months, a period of stepped-up Israeli operations against Iranian targets in the region – brought his air force chief and top military mission planner for the London meeting with Esper.

Israeli Foreign Minister Israel Katz told Ynet TV that Netanyahu and Esper would discuss “everything that happens in the space between Syria, Lebanon, Iraq,” an allusion to the often clandestine Israeli military campaign.

(Writing by Dan Williams; Editing by Jeffrey Heller, Toby Chopra and Peter Graff)

Netanyahu: Israel ready for any scenario after Hezbollah clash

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu looks on as he arrives to review an honor guard with his Ethiopian counterpart Abiy Ahmed during their meeting in Jerusalem September 1, 2019. REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun

By Ari Rabinovitch and Ellen Francis

JERUSALEM/BEIRUT (Reuters) – Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Sunday that Israel was prepared for any scenario after a cross-border clash with Lebanon’s Hezbollah, but neither side seemed eager for another conflict.

Israel’s military said anti-tank missiles from Lebanon targeted an army base and vehicles. It responded with fire into southern Lebanon, after a week of growing tension raised fears of a new war with long-time enemy Hezbollah.

The Iran-backed Hezbollah movement said its fighters destroyed an Israeli military vehicle, killing and wounding those inside. Israel said there were no casualties.

Netanyahu, whose re-election campaign ahead of a poll less than three weeks away could have been complicated by war in the north, signaled business as usual after the hostilities erupted along the frontier with Lebanon.

The Israeli leader kept to his regular schedule, commenting on the security situation, in Hebrew only, at the start of a meeting with Honduras’ visiting president, and did not take questions from reporters.

“We were attacked by a few anti-tank missiles. We responded with 100 shells, aerial fire and various measures. We are in consultations about what’s to come,” Netanyahu said.

“I have given instructions to be prepared for any scenario, and we will decide on what’s next depending on how things develop,” he said, almost dismissively, in a departure from his usually much tougher language toward Israel’s enemies.

“I can make an important announcement – we have no casualties, no wounded, not even a scratch.”

The U.N. peacekeeping force on the frontier said calm had returned to the region at night. The United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) also said it had urged both sides to “exercise utmost restraint to prevent any further escalation.”

The two sides fought a month-long war in 2006 after Hezbollah captured two Israeli soldiers in a cross-border raid.

Israel has been on alert for a confrontation with Hezbollah for the past week after two drones crashed in Beirut’s southern suburbs, with one of them exploding. Security officials in the region have described the target as linked to precision-guided missile projects.

Any new war between Israel and Hezbollah would raise the risk of a wider conflict in the Middle East, where Iran has defied U.S. attempts to force it to renegotiate a 2015 nuclear deal it reached with world powers.

At the same time, Israel is alarmed by Tehran’s growing influence in the region through militia allies such as Hezbollah in countries such as Syria.

In Iraq, powerful Iranian-backed militias have blamed a series of recent blasts at their weapons depots on Israel and the United States.

Hezbollah said the operation on Sunday was carried out by a unit named after two of its fighters who were killed by an Israeli airstrike inside Syria last week.

An Iranian security official was cited as saying the Hezbollah attack on Sunday was “a reciprocal measure”.

Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah said on Saturday night that field commanders were ready to respond to last week’s drone attack, which he blamed on Israel. But like Netanyahu, Nasrallah has not indicated Hezbollah was seeking full-scale war.

Amid the threats, Israel had moved extra forces into the border region, which was largely quiet since the 2006 war.

Without claiming responsibility for the Beirut drone attack, the Israeli military has published what it said were details about an extensive Iranian-sponsored campaign to provide Hezbollah with the means to produce precision-guided missiles.

Such missiles could potentially pose a counter-balance to Israel’s overwhelming military force in any future war, with the capacity to home in on and knock out core infrastructure sites.

Nasrallah says Hezbollah has enough of the missiles, dismissing claims that it has factories to produce the weapons.

(Writing by Michael Georgy; Editing by Jane Merriman and Mark Potter)

Netanyahu tells Macron timing wrong for Iran talks: statement

FILE PHOTO: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during a cornerstone-laying ceremony for Mobileye's center in Jerusalem August 27, 2019. Abir Sultan/Pool via REUTERS/File Photo

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu urged French President Emmanuel Macron on Friday to avoid new talks with Israel’s regional arch-foe Iran, his office said, as European leaders pushed to save the 2015 nuclear deal.

“This is precisely the wrong timing to hold talks with Iran, while it is increasing its aggression in the region,” Netanyahu told Macron in a telephone conversation that was initiated by the French leader, according to the Israeli statement.

Macron on Sunday paved the way for a potential breakthrough in the standoff between Washington and Tehran over the nuclear deal after Iran’s foreign minister made a flying visit for talks with host France at the G7 summit.

On Monday, at the G7 summit, U.S. President Donald Trump said that he would meet Iran’s president under the right circumstances and that talks were underway to see how countries could open credit lines to keep Iran’s economy afloat.

The nuclear deal has been in jeopardy since the United States withdrew from it last year and re-imposed economic sanctions, seeking to push Tehran into wider security concessions including curbs on its ballistic missile program.

Netanyahu, who sees Iran as a mortal threat and has long opposed the nuclear deal, has urged that sanctions be re-imposed on Tehran. He has so far been in lockstep with the Trump administration over its Iran policy.

On Tuesday, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said the Islamic Republic would not talk to the United States until all sanctions imposed on Tehran are lifted.

Rouhani said Iran was always ready to hold talks. “But first the U.S. should act by lifting all illegal, unjust and unfair sanctions imposed on Iran,” he said.

EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini said on Friday that the European Union will work to preserve the nuclear deal and would welcome any moves to add to its conditions.

Macron’s diplomatic moves came as Israel-Iran tensions flared. Last Saturday, Israel’s military struck in Syria in what it described as the thwarting of an Iranian-led killer-drone attack on Israeli targets.

On Thursday, Israel accused Iran of stepping up efforts to provide the Lebanese Hezbollah militia with precision-guided missile production facilities.

“Israel will defend itself against any attacks and prevent enemies that seek its destruction from obtaining nuclear weapons,” Netanyahu told Macron, according to the statement.

Israel and the Iranian-backed Shi’ite Hezbollah are on high alert after drones were used on Sunday to attack what a security official in the region described as a target linked to precision-guided missile projects.

Hezbollah has blamed Israel for the rare strike in Beirut, and said it will retaliate. The heavily armed group has denied harboring such missile facilities.

(Reporting by Maayan Lubell, Editing by William Maclean)