Joel Rosenberg: Netanyahu in big trouble – What you need to know about Tuesday's Israeli election

Israel is the only true democracy in the Middle East. We Israelis love elections so much we’ve had two in the last five months.

But Tuesday’s vote didn’t go well for Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu, the longest-serving prime minister in Israeli history, with 12 years in office. After pulling out all the stops to secure 61 or more seats in the Knesset (the 120-seat Israeli parliament) to build a right-wing coalition government, Netanyahu and his Likud Party fell well short.

In fact, Benny Gantz and the Blue and White Party won 33 seats in the Knesset to Likud’s 31 seats, according to projections, with nearly all the votes counted. Gantz previously served as a highly decorated chief of staff of the Israeli Defense Forces.

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Israeli politics are cutthroat and complicated, so there’s no point in going through all the possible permutations of what happens from here.

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Short version: the most likely outcome is now a “national unity government” in which either Gantz serves as prime minister for the first two years and Netanyahu for the second two years of the prime minister’s term of office, or vice versa.

That said, here’s what you need to know:

Netanyahu is in big trouble. He faces an all-important court hearing Oct. 2, and it is very possible he will be formally indicted in three separate corruption cases. Though Netanyahu deserves the presumption of innocence, many Israelis believe government officials should not forge a deal with him because he will need to spend so much of his time on his own legal defense in the months and years ahead.

Netanyahu asked Gantz on Thursday to join him in a unity government. “Benny we have to set up a broad unity government,” Netanyahu said in a tweet that included a video. “The nation expects us, both of us to act responsibly by working together.” Netanyahu wants to head such a government. But Gantz would want to become prime minister first if such a deal is reached.

Gantz also wants to form a “broad … national unity government.” Blue and White leaders say they would be happy to form one with Likud, but only if someone other than Netanyahu leads Likud. They don’t want to make a deal with Netanyahu because he’s facing indictments.

Avigdor Liberman’s party appears to have won nine seats in the Knesset.  Liberman is the former defense minister and former chief of staff for Netanyahu who is a now a fierce rival of the prime minister. The right-wing secular Yisrael Beiteinu Party that he now heads went from five seats to nine in the Knesset as a result of Tuesday’s election, according to projections. Liberman is widely regarded as the kingmaker whose support is crucial to anyone trying to create a majority coalition. Liberman indicated Thursday that he will recommend Gantz to be the next prime minister, though he, too, supports a national unity government.

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If all this weren’t complicated enough, neither Blue and White nor Liberman’s party are keen on having religious parties that represent ultra-Orthodox Jews in a coalition government, believing those parties already exert too much control over Israeli social policy and the budget.

“We cannot and there is no reason to go to third elections,” Netanyahu said, expressing a sentiment no doubt shared by most election-weary Israelis. When Netanyahu fell one vote short of forming a coalition government after elections in April, he called the new elections that were held Tuesday, rather than giving Gantz a chance to form a coalition at that time.

The next step in the battle to lead Israel will be for President Reuven Rivlin to designate one candidate to try to assemble a coalition government.

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The designation typically goes to the candidate with the most seats in the Knesset – in this case Gantz – but Rivlin could select Netanyahu to try to form a coalition if Rivlin believes the current prime minister has a better chance of succeeding.

No one knows how this will all turn out. But the struggle is so intense that Netanyahu canceled a planned trip to address the United Nations General Assembly to stay in Israel for the tough bargaining ahead, in an effort to drum up enough support to remain in power.

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