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AFP
September 19, 2019

Israel divided over Gantz, Netanyahu in exit polls

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AFP
September 19, 2019

JERUSALEM: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his main challenger Benny Gantz were deadlocked on Wednesday after a general election, Israeli media reported, raising the possibility of a unity government or even the end of the premier’s long rule.

Various Israeli outlets reported that Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud had 31 seats, while Gantz’s Blue and White took 32 out of a total 120 seats. But with more than 90 per cent of the vote counted, Gantz’s slim lead gave no obvious path for either party to form a majority coalition, raising the possibility of negotiations towards a unity government.

The reports were citing elections committee sources, as that level of results had not been officially posted yet. If the results hold, it will be a major setback for Netanyahu, who hoped to form a right-wing coalition similar to his current one as he faces the possibility of corruption charges in the weeks ahead.

With a hoarse voice and appearing haggard after days of intense campaigning, Netanyahu spoke before supporters in the early hours of Wednesday and said he was prepared for negotiations to form a “strong Zionist government”.

He seemed to hint at openness to forming a national unity government, but did not specifically say so. Gantz, addressing supporters in Tel Aviv, called for a “broad unity government” but cautioned that he was waiting for final results.

“We will act to form a broad unity government that will express the will of the people,” the former armed forces chief said. “We will begin negotiations and I will speak with everyone.”

On Wednesday morning when journalists approached him as he headed out for a run, Gantz said “we’ll wait for the final results ... and wish Israel a good unity government.”

Ex-defence minister Avigdor Lieberman could prove to be kingmaker, with the reported results giving his secular-nationalist party Yisrael Beitenu nine seats. The mainly Arab Joint List alliance was set to become the third-largest bloc in parliament with 13 seats, the reports said. That could allow Arab parties to block Netanyahu from continuing as prime minister if they decide to break with precedent and endorse Gantz for the job. Israel’s Arab parties have traditionally not endorsed anyone for prime minister.

“The main difference in this vote is the turnout among Arab citizens,” Joint List leader Ayman Odeh told journalists outside his home in the northern city of Haifa on Wednesday.

“There’s no doubt that this is what made the difference. Without that, Netanyahu would already be prime minister.”

After exit polls were released on Tuesday night, Lieberman called for a unity government formed of his party, Likud and Blue and White, saying the country was facing an “emergency.”

The election was the second in five months for Israel, and President Reuven Rivlin, who must choose someone to form the next government, said there was a “need to avoid a third”.

Netanyahu, Israel’s longest-serving prime minister, suffered one of the biggest defeats of his political career after the previous elections in April. His Likud along with its right-wing and religious allies won a majority, but he failed to form a coalition and opted for a second election rather than risk having Rivlin choose someone else to try.—AFP

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