Doug Schoen: Netanyahu and Gantz in tight race to lead Israel – Winner must master the art of the deal

Based on exit polls from Tuesday’s national election, neither Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his Likud Party nor his principal challenger – former Army chief Benny Gantz and his Blue and White Party – won enough support to form a governing coalition.

Exit polls from Israel’s three main TV stations projected Blue and White to win 32 seats in Israel’s parliament, the Knesset. Different polls projected Likud to win either 30, 31 or 32 seats.

A party needs 61 seats in the 120-member Knesset to form a government. No party has ever won that many seats outright, so one of the major parties needs to form a coalition with smaller parties to reach the 61-seat majority and form a government.

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Now the question remains: Do Israelis wish to continue on Netanyahu’s path and keep him in power? He is already the nation’s longest-serving prime minister, with 12 years in office.

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Or, are Israelis prepared to hand the reins over to Gantz – who, despite holding a rich military background, has little experience in political matters.

One thing is clear from the exit polls: Netanyahu and Likud – which played up Netanyahu’s strong relationship with President Trump and the prime minister’s proposed annexation of parts of the West Bank in their campaign – did not get the overwhelming mandate from voters they were looking for.

If Israeli exit polls are accurate – a big if – it appears Netanyahu’s mandate will have weakened to the point where he will prove unable to avoid criminal indictments possibly heading his way this fall.

What remains to be seen is if the Likud Party will abandon its leader to face the Supreme Court alone in his criminal case, and if Netanyahu would have a role to play in a broad national unity coalition if one is formed between Likud and Blue and White.

The Jerusalem Post reported that both Netanyahu and Gantz each told supporters early Wednesday morning they would form a winning coalition. Which one will succeed is unknown at this time.

“All of the Likud's partners want to move forward together to build a strong government and not permit a dangerous anti-Zionist government,” Netanyahu told a gathering of his supporters.

Gantz told his supporters that he has already spoken to leaders of some other political parties and would reach out to others. "I call here to all my political rivals, to leave the disagreements aside and work together to create a fair and equal society for all of Israel's citizens," he said.

Trading on his relationships with President Trump, Russian President Vladimir Putin, and other world leaders, Netanyahu sought to link his leadership to the security of the country – something Israelis value more than any political position or party.

The Israeli election Tuesday was the second in five months. In elections in April, Likud and Blue and White (named for the colors of the Israeli flag) each won 35 seats. Netanyahu and Likud fell one vote short of forming a 61-seat coalition majority, prompting him to call a new election rather than giving Blue and White the chance to try to form a coalition.

The collapse of the Knesset in April soon after members were elected was unprecedented.

Now, after months of uncertainty and a campaign that cost the Israeli government around $700 million, Israelis must hold their breath to see what type of government emerges.

Israel’s electoral system differs in many ways from the United States. Israeli voters cast a ballot for a political party – not for individual candidates.

There were 30 parties on the ballot. Once the votes are counted, seats are assigned proportionally based on the percentage of votes to parties that go above a certain threshold.

At that point, the deal-making begins in an effort for one of the main parties to create a coalition controlling at least 61 Knesset seats. This is why Israelis are still left wondering just who their prime minister will be, what the makeup of the ruling coalition will be, and what the direction of the government will be.

It appears that Israel is stuck in the position of having Avigdor Liberman’s far-right Yisrael Beiteinu Party in the role of kingmaker, similar to April’s results.

Unlike typical Israeli and American elections, political positioning was merely a sideshow in this campaign. There is no right-vs-left in Israel anymore. Netanyahu and Gantz do not differ much politically.

Rather, this election was a referendum on Netanyahu, who has loomed over Israeli politics for three decades and is perhaps the most skilled political tactician Israel has ever known since the creation of the modern state in 1948.

Trading on his relationships with President Trump, Russian President Vladimir Putin, and other world leaders, Netanyahu sought to link his leadership to the security of the country – something Israelis value more than any political position or party.

Indeed, the power of Netanyahu’s “Mr. Security” image was demonstrated by Likud’s strong showing in April’s election, despite charges of corruption and possible criminal indictments that Netanyahu may face.

Ultimately, Netanyahu’s electoral strength reveals that Israelis are willing to overlook their disdain for the pending corruption charges against him for the feeling of protection and security that Netanyahu has brought to the nation during his tenure.

Beyond his promise of security, Netanyahu has also presided over what many call the greatest period of economic and political growth that Israel has ever known.

As we await official results, Israel and the rest of the world are in a holding pattern to see the direction diplomacy in the Middle East will take for the foreseeable future.

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At this point, all likely outcomes point to four options for Israel’s next government: a unity coalition government made up of Likud and Blue and White – the preferred scenario of a majority of the electorate; a narrow right-wing government; a stalemate that can only be broken by Liberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu Party; or a government including a group of Arab political parties called the Joint List – a nightmare scenario for most of Israel’s Jewish majority.

Despite the fearmongering on both sides, Israeli voters can rest assured that whether Gantz or Netanyahu emerges victorious, government policies will not swing drastically – provided Gantz can reach 61 seats without relying on Arab support. Unfortunately, that is an almost impossible scenario.

There may be less accommodations to the Orthodox Jewish population if Gantz becomes prime minister, and there may be increased talk of annexing Israeli settlement blocs in the West Bank if Netanyahu wins.

However, the demise of the Israeli left as a consequence of Palestinian extremism has guaranteed that no true leftist government will be elected in Israel in the foreseeable future.

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After a tumultuous five months since the last election, only one thing is certain: Israel needs a strong government that is able to provide for the country’s defense, effectively advocate for keeping pressure on Iran, and end the paralysis that has gripped the country since April.

Until the 45-day waiting period to form a new government is up and a true winner is announced, one of America’s staunchest allies is without a functioning government and is forced to await the results of deal-making.

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