Israeli PM vows to press forth despite election shortfall

JERUSALEM (AP) — A defiant Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Saturday he was “not going anywhere” even after he again fell short of a parliamentary majority with his hard-line allies in his country’s third election in less than a year.

Convening what he called an “emergency conference,” Netanyahu accused his opponents of trying to “steal the elections” by aligning with Arab-led parties he said were hostile to the state.

The election results looked to extend the country’s year-old political deadlock and weaken the longtime leader as he prepares to go on trial for corruption charges later this month.

The embattled Netanyahu had been looking for a decisive victory in today’s vote, and initial exit polls had indicated his Likud party and smaller religious and nationalist allies had captured 60 seats, just one short of a majority required to form a new government. Netanyahu triumphantly declared a “huge victory”.

But a final count announced by the election commission determined that Netanyahu’s jubilation was premature. Likud emerged as the largest individual party, with 36 seats, ahead of 33 seats for the rival Blue and White Party. But with his smaller allies, Netanyahu’s right-wing bloc captured just 58 seats, well short of the 61-seat majority.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu delivers a statement in Petah Tikva. PHOTO: AP

While Netanyahu’s opponents control a majority of seats, they are deeply divided, with a hard-line nationalist party and the predominantly Arab Joint List among them. The Joint List captured 15 seats, making it the third-largest party in parliament — its best performance ever.

Those divisions could make it difficult for Blue and White’s leader, former military chief Benny Gantz, to establish an alternative coalition. If neither he nor Netanyahu can form a government, the country would head to an unprecedented fourth straight election.

But even if he can’t build a government himself this time, Gantz’s party looks to be promoting legislation in the new parliament that would bar anyone indicted of a crime being able to lead a government. The proposal, which would seemingly enjoy a parliamentary majority, has raised the ire of Netanyahu and his allies.

“A personal, retroactive law that goes against the most basic principles in democracy,” Netanyahu charged on Saturday. “We won’t let it happen. We will exert all our moral power to make sure it doesn’t happen.”

The long-serving Israeli leader is scheduled to go on trial March 17 on charges of fraud, breach of trust and accepting bribes. He is accused of accepting expensive gifts from wealthy friends and offering favours to powerful media moguls in exchange for positive press coverage. Netanyahu has denied any wrongdoing and accused the media, police and prosecutors of conspiring to oust him.

Netanyahu is desperate to remain in office. Israeli law does not require the prime minister to resign if charged with a crime, and Netanyahu can use the powerful post to rally public support and lash out at what he says is an unfair legal system and hostile media.

In comments shortly after Netanyahu’s statements, Gantz refrained from detailing his plans but showed no sign of bending on campaign promises to replace Netanyahu.

“I will establish a stable government that would heal Israel from the hate and divisiveness,” he said. “Netanyahu lost. Most of the people decided they don’t want him to continue and that is what they will get.”