Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s long grip on power appeared in jeopardy on Wednesday after elections left him tied with his main challenger Benny Gantz raising the prospect of tough negotiations to build a unity government or even the end of the premier’s record long rule.
In a sign of the demanding negotiations to come, sources in Netanyahu’s office told AFP he was cancelling a planned trip next week to the UN General Assembly in New York due to the “political context” in Israel.
He had been due to meet his “friend” US President Donald Trump on the fringes of the international gathering to discuss a defence treaty between the two allies.
But Israel’s longest-serving premier is staying home as he battles to retain his grip on power.
With more than 95 percent of ballots counted, Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud had 32 seats, while Gantz’s Blue and White took 33 places in Israel’s 120-member parliament.
Gantz’s slim lead, however, gave no obvious path for either party to form a majority coalition, raising the possibility of negotiations towards a unity government.
“There are only two options, a government led by me or a dangerous government dependent on the Arab parties,” Netanyahu told a press conference in Jerusalem on Wednesday night.
“In these times, more than ever, when we face enormous security and political challenges, it cannot be that there will be a government that depends on anti-Zionist Arab parties,” he said.
Throughout his campaign, Netanyahu warned, as he has in previous elections, that left-wing and Arab voters were showing up in large numbers to try to oust him.
Media said the mainly Arab Joint List alliance was set to become the third-largest bloc in parliament with 13 seats.
End of “Netanyahu era” ?
“The Netanyahu era is over,” said Ahmed Tibi, one of the list’s leaders. “If Gantz calls, we shall tell him our conditions for supporting him.”
If the initial results hold, it will be a major setback for Netanyahu, who hoped to form a right-wing coalition similar to his current administration as he faces the possibility of a corruption indictment in the weeks ahead.