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Defection Game Begins After Israeli Election Produces No Winners
New Hope leader Gideon Sa'ar addresses supporters after disappointing exit poll results were announced at the close of Election Day, on March 23, 2021. (Uri Cohen/The Media Line)

Defection Game Begins After Israeli Election Produces No Winners

Netanyahu will try to lure ex-Likud MKs to form narrow right-wing government

Two years and four election cycles after Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu first dissolved his government and headed for general elections in the winter of 2019, Israelis – and the rest of the world watching – awoke on Wednesday to discover that precisely nothing had changed.

In a turn of events hardly surprising to anyone, Israel’s political stalemate was not resolved at the fourth go-round, as initial results showed yet another dead heat with neither side securing the 61-seat majority needed to form a viable government.

With 13 fragmented parties passing the required 3.25% electoral threshold and entering parliament – the largest number of parties to make the cut in nearly 20 years – one of the most resounding disappointments of the night was Gideon Sa’ar’s New Hope party.

Managing only five seats after initially polling at over 20, Sa’ar, a former Likud lawmaker and close confidant of Netanyahu who set off on his own path to unseat the powerful premier, offered a somber concession speech late Tuesday night to a mostly empty hall in Tel Aviv.

“We will not enter a government headed by Netanyahu,” a tired Sa’ar promised his hushed supporters, repeating his campaign vow. “We will do anything to establish a ‘change’ government, and ego will not be a consideration.”

With close to 90% of the votes counted, the coalition of parties opposed to the continued reign of Netanyahu seems to have clinched 56 seats, with Netanyahu’s bloc nabbing 52. The remaining 12 seats belong to two very different factions – Naftali Bennett’s right-wing Yamina party and Mansour Abbas’ Islamic United Arab List – both refusing to declare sides and seemingly open to cooperating with the highest bidder.

Netanyahu and his rivals, chief among them Opposition Leader Yair Lapid and Bennett himself, each gave cautious victory speeches as the votes were being counted overnight, calling on everyone in the political system to lay their differences aside and put the good of the country first.

The seemingly endless deadlock could theoretically be resolved if Netanyahu managed to form a narrow 61-member coalition with the extreme right-wing parties, Bennett and Abbas, or if the center-left bloc, splintered into a handful of small to medium-sized parties, succeeded in luring Bennett over to its side.

A shaky 61-member coalition, consisting exclusively of right-wing lawmakers, is “not ideal,” especially when dealing with the outside world, Israel’s former ambassador to the United Nations and longtime Likud MK Danny Danon says.

“I don’t think [the White House] is happy with these results,” he told The Media Line. “Even putting politics aside, any friend of Israel – and the United States is the closest ally Israel has – would like to see a wide, stable government.”

Yet the alternative of a fifth election in two years, looming ever closer as results continue to trickle in, is worse, Danon insists.

“We take a lot of pride in being a strong democracy, but I spoke with many world leaders [on Tuesday], and this is really bad for Israel’s image,” he says.

Yohanan Plesner, president of the Israeli Democracy Institute, believes “a narrow government with radical elements that are certain to create provocations vis-à-vis [West Bank] settlements expansion and Israeli-Arab relations definitely won’t make things easier” for the current Joe Biden administration.

Yet central Israeli interests in foreign policy and security are not expected to change if such a government is eventually erected, Plesner told The Media Line.

Other than a rocky, one-vote-majority government or fifth elections, a third alternative is one side managing to pinch defectors from the opposing bloc.

The immediate suspects on Wednesday were lawmakers from Sa’ar’s own party, nearly all of them former Likud members who might be easily swayed by potential Netanyahu advances.

“Now is the time to be creative. I hope we’ll find support from conservative MKs elected in other parties,” Danon, a close friend of Sa’ar and other New Hope representatives, said bluntly.

“I don’t support this approach, but in the Knesset today you have candidates who have already crossed sides two or three times. Each side is trying to identify the weak links and offer them tempting positions in future governments.”

“I regretted Gideon’s decision [to leave the Likud] from the beginning. This isn’t a conflict about ideology, but a personal one mostly about ego. We have to put the country first, and I hope they will understand that.

Yet a member of Sa’ar’s list, speaking with The Media Line on condition of anonymity, said any defections were out of the question.

“No way. We knew what we were getting into and despite the low numbers, I couldn’t be prouder,” the person said. “I don’t regret our decision for a moment, and we will do anything to coalesce our bloc and form a government that works for Israelis first and foremost.”

Final results from the extremely close election are expected by Friday morning. By then, Israel may already know where it is headed.

And If the past 24 months have been any indication, that destination is the worn and tattered ballot box, because who knows, the fifth time just might be the charm.

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