Israel heads into Tuesday’s election do-over a fiercely divided nation, with no definitive sign whether Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will retain his grip on power.
While the latest opinion polls gave Netanyahu a bump, they still suggest he’ll struggle to put together a parliamentary majority without former Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman, a onetime ally who refused to join his government following the April 9 election.
Liberman, long seen as the kingmaker in this election, has slipped in recent surveys, and sentiment could still shift further in the premier’s favor. If it turns out that Netanyahu does need his fickle friend, the real drama will come as the Israeli leader tries to peel off lawmakers from the opposing camp — or be forced out if he fails.
“It could end with another stalemate, and several weeks during which the president taps someone to form a government and he runs into obstacles,” said Yoram Meital, a political scientist at Ben-Gurion University. “It’s a very polarized political landscape, and it’s too early to predict how it will end.”
The Netanyahu-led bloc will land about 58 seats in the 120-member Knesset, final polls predicted, with Liberman’s Yisrael Beitenu capturing eight, up from five in April but down from a high of 11. The grouping led by the premier’s chief rival, former military chief Benny Gantz, is set to secure about 53 seats, they indicated. According to pollster Smith Consulting, about 12% of respondents hadn’t decided how to vote.
Netanyahu’s uncertain prospects come at a bad time for him personally, as he tries to head off possible corruption charges, and for his plans to quash Iranian and Palestinian ambitions.
Netanyahu’s campaign has been about survival. He’s claimed, without evidence, that opponents are trying to steal the election through voter fraud, and revived the anti-Arab messages that won him support in the past. He’s made a bid for nationalist votes by promising to annex parts of the West Bank, a move Israel has shunned for more than 50 years.
Staying in power could be crucial to Netanyahu’s efforts to stay out of court — and possibly jail. He entered the race weakened by what he says are baseless graft allegations cooked up by left-wing opponents. Before coalition talks broke down, he was trying to push through new legislation granting him immunity from prosecution while in office.
The economy rarely strayed into the campaign given solid growth. But the next government will have to decide what mix of tax hikes or spending cuts is needed to bridge a widening fiscal deficit.
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