Israel headed to the polls on Tuesday to elect a new prime minister, pitting Trump ally Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu against the former military chief Benny Gantz.
If this feels familiar, it is.
Just 5 months ago, the country was having a different election, after Netanyahu’s government dissolved due to clashes with his coalition partners. Early elections were called for April 9.
Netanyahu was — and is again — facing Benny Gantz, a 60-year-old who served as the Israeli Army’s Chief of Staff from 2011-2015, navigating the country through two incursions on the Gaza Strip, which earned him praise for his leadership.
Gantz leads the centrist Blue and White party, which was only formed this year.
Many voters have voiced support for Gantz, who would undeniably bring change after Netanyahu’s four terms and 13 years as prime minister. Netanyahu heads the right-wing Likud party.
Both Netanyahu and Gantz won 35 seats in Israel’s parliament, far short of the 61 needed for an outright majority (Israel’s parliament — also called the Knesset — has 120 seats.)
If a party has no majority, the Israeli President — currently Reuven Rivlin — picks a prime minister based on who they consider most able to form a coalition. In April, Rivlin chose Netanyahu, who then failed to form a coalition government. The consequence was the September election.
Election results put Netanyahu and Gantz neck-and-neck
As of 11 a.m. Wednesday in Israel, Gantz’s Blue and White party was slightly ahead with 27.3% of the vote.
Netanyahu’s Likud party trailed with 26.9% of the vote, with 56% of the votes tallied. Third parties, soon to become strategic allies to the as-of-yet undetermined winner, held smaller yet significant portions of the vote.
Though Israelis are reliving an experience they went through just months ago, voter turnout this election was higher than April’s, up to 69.4% from 67.9%.
If no party secures an outright majority, Rivlin will select his choice. After the president decides, the chosen candidate has 42 days to form a coalition government through negotiation with smaller parties.
If the selected leader can’t form a coalition, another candidate will be given a chance.
Gantz on Wednesday night called for a “good and desirable unity government,” according to Haaretz, a reference to a possible joint rule between his party and Netanyahu’s Likud.
Avigdor Liberman, the leader of the Yisrael Beiteinu party — a kingmaker in the last election— also called on both parties to join together in a “broad liberal unity government.”
Experts say it’s likely Netanyahu will be unseated — and Trump will lose a strategic Middle East ally
Exit polls suggest that Netanyahu’s role as Israel’s strongman may soon be coming to an end.
Yohanan Plesner, President of the Israel Democracy Institute, said in a press call on Tuesday that exits polls indicate a “quite dramatic outcome.”
“For the first time after a decade, there is a very high likelihood that Netanyahu is no longer going to be the Prime Minister of the State of Israel,” he said.
While it will be up to Rivlin to say which candidate will be tasked with forming a coalition, Plesner said Netanyahu’s chances appear to be “blocked,” because Gantz has more potential coalition partners.
Plesner added that Likud might decide to unseat Netanyahu as party leader, which could help their chances of forming a unity government.
“We might enter a period of days and perhaps weeks, when it is unclear who is going to be the Prime Minister,” he said.
Netanyahu is a strategic ally to US President Donald Trump and has grown closer to him since his election in 2016.
Under the Trump administration, the US has made several policy decisions favorable to Israel, including recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and moving its embassy there, withdrawing from the nuclear deal it signed with Israel’s nemesis Iran, and calling for the recognition of Israel’s annexation of the Golan Heights.
But Plesner said that Trump’s friendliness did less to boost Netanyahu in this election, because voters were used to it and any boost “was already factored in.”
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