JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s prospects for another term looked uncertain on Wednesday after partial results from a national election projected no clear path to victory.
Not even his stewardship of Israel’s world-beating COVID-19 vaccination rollout – a central pillar of his campaign – proved enough for Netanyahu to break through the political deadlock that has seen four elections in two years.
With about 88% of votes counted it appeared that Netanyahu, 71, would have to cobble together a coalition from a combination of right-wing allies, ultra-Orthodox parties, ultra-nationalists, Arabs and defectors to secure another term.
Should a hard-right government emerge, it would likely be at loggerheads with the Democratic administration of U.S. President Joe Biden over issues such as Palestinian statehood and U.S. engagement with Israel’s arch-enemy Iran over its nuclear programme.
Some centre-left parties made a better showing than expected after highlighting longstanding corruption allegations against Netanyahu – which he denies – and accusing him of mishandling the early months of the pandemic.
But like Netanyahu’s right-wing bloc it fell short of a governing majority in the 120-member parliament. And it has a less clear route to forming a coalition, having to unite parties from different wings of the political spectrum.
Immediately after polls closed on Tuesday, Netanyahu claimed victory and said he hoped to form a “stable right-wing government”. But as first results trickled in and seemed to shift against him, he did not repeat the claim in his televised post-election speech.
One potential kingmaker is Naftali Bennett, 48, a former defence minister who favours annexing parts of the Israeli-occupied West Bank.
Bennett’s hawkish Yamina party is projected to win seven seats. He remained non-committal after the vote, saying only he would do “what is good for Israel”.
Yohanan Plesner, head of the Israel Democracy Institute, predicted political paralysis and said a fifth national election was possible.
“It seems quite clear that Israelis are split right down the middle with respect to the main question that divides Israeli politics, which is pro and against Mr Netanyahu,” he said.
“The period of uncertainty, deadlock and paralysis is expected to accompany us for the foreseeable future.”
Visting Tubas in the Israeli-occupied West Bank on Wednesday, Palestinian Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh said the outcome “does not really give any hope for peace” and that the Israeli political system had shifted to the right.
“What is needed really from the future prime minister of Israel is somebody who is ready to stand up and say that he is ready to end occupation,” Shtayyeh told Reuters. “We have to break this status quo.”
Netanyahu has sealed historic deals with several Arab nations to normalise ties, but Israel and the Palestinians have not held direct negotiations since 2014, when peace talks broke down. Each side accuses the other of intransigence over core issues such as Jerusalem and Jewish settlements.
Tuesday’s vote followed three inconclusive elections in which neither Netanyahu nor his centre-left opponents won a stable majority in the 120-seat parliament.
Netanyahu’s Likud is now projected to emerge as the largest party with 30 seats, down from 36. The opposition centrist party Yesh Atid, headed by Yair Lapid, is set to be second with 18 seats.
Lapid, 57, had hoped there would be enough parties in the anti-Netanyahu bloc to oust the veteran premier, in power since 2009.
It usually falls to the biggest party to try to form a government, and that could take weeks of back-room dealings.
Netanyahu may have to woo Jewish religious allies as well as far-rightists and possibly even the the United Arab List (UAL), an Islamist party forecast to win five seats.
UAL leader Mansour Abbas, 46, has advocated working with Netanyahu to address the needs of Israel’s 21% Arab minority – a position rejected by most Arabs.
“We are not in anyone’s pocket. We are prepared to engage with both sides (Netanyahu and Lapid),” Abbas told Tel Aviv radio station 103 FM. Israeli media reported that he had agreed to meet Lapid later this week.
Israel’s shekel was flat against the dollar and stocks slipped on Wednesday.
(Additional reporting by Stephen Farrell, Ari Rabinovitch, Ali Sawafta and Dan Williams; Editing by Gareth Jones)