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Split to inaction

Uncertainty looms large over politically divided Israel as neither Netanyahu nor his opponents have succeeded in stitching a government to end the political impasse

Split to inaction
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Israel is facing its worst political crisis in decades after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his political opponents failed to garner a governing majority in the just held parliamentary elections, the fourth in just two years.

The final tally in March 23 vote shows Netanyahu's Likud party and his right-wing allies eight seats short of a majority to form the government. They have won 52 seats compared to 57 held by his ideologically diverse array of parties ranging from leftists Arab factions to hardline nationalists committed to replacing him.

71-year-old Netanyahu's Likud party got around a quarter of the votes, making it the largest party in parliament. A total of 13 parties received enough votes to enter the Knesset—the most since the 2003 election—leaving the parliament divided among a host of midsize parties representing ultra-orthodox Jewish, Arab, secular, nationalist and liberal factions.

The voting pattern shows how deeply divided Israeli politics is. Some are for Netanyahu and some are against him.

A right-wing party Yamina led by former Netanyahu ally Naftali Bennett won seven seats and an Arab Islamist party, called Ra'am in Hebrew, led by Mansour Abbas won four seats. Neither Bennett nor Abbas has committed to either camp.

In order to form a government Netanyahu or his opponents have to work with their respective allies to secure a 61-seat majority in the 120-member Knesset or parliament.

Under Israel's fragmented political system, Netanyahu could still try to reach across the aisle and cobble together a governing coalition by engineering defection. He will have to have a highly unusual approach of building a coalition with Jewish ultra-Orthodox, ultra-nationalist and Arab parties. But it seems extremely difficult given the hostility toward him.

His opponents would also have to explore various possible combinations that could secure the required number to form a government. This could include luring Netanyahu's ultra-Orthodox allies and even disgruntled members of the Likud party.

Deep division in both the pro-Netanyahu and anti-Netanyahu blocs could make it difficult for either side to secure a majority to form a government. The muddy scenario could extend the political uncertainty. It is also quite possible Israel will go into a fifth election later this year.

March 23 vote is widely seen as a referendum on Netanyahu's leadership style and fitness to rule while under indictment. Israelis are split right down the middle on this question.

The election outcome is a stinging rebuke for Netanyahu, the most dominant figure in Israeli politics in a generation. It can also be seen as a referendum on his leadership style and fitness to rule while under indictment in corruption and other charges.

However, Netanyahu's supporters see him as a statesman qualified to lead the nation. In his campaign, Netanyahu highlighted his successful management of the Corona pandemic in the country as well as diplomatic agreements reached last year with four Arab countries.

His opponents are against his leading the country at a time when he is on trial on multiple corruption charges. The trial is set to begin on April 5 when evidence of a number of his former aides would be recorded in the court.

The outcome of the government formation would also affect Netanyahu's trial on corruption charges. A right-wing government could attempt to block the trial from proceeding. Netanyahu has denied any wrongdoing.

Netanyahu has promised to enact sweeping legal reforms that would limit the power of the judiciary and his opponent fear that the action would allow him to circumvent his corruption trial.

Israel's seemingly endless political impasse is partly rooted in the nature of its election system, which allocates parliamentary seats according to each party's share of the vote, making it easy for smaller parties to enter parliament, and difficult for bigger parties to secure a majority.

"Israel is experiencing its worst political crisis in decades. It is apparent that our political system finds it very difficult to produce a decisive outcome," Yohanan Plesner, president of the Israel Democracy Institute was quoted as saying by AP.

The next government, if it is formed will have to shape relations with the Palestinians and Arab countries. Netanyahu opposes the kind of fully-fledged independent state Palestinians are seeking in the Israeli occupied West Bank, Jerusalem, Gaza, and supports Jewish settlements in the West Bank and occupied East Jerusalem.

A centrist or centre-left government would be more likely to try to revive stalled negotiations with the Palestinians and consider territorial concessions in return for peace.

A new government will also have to work hard to put the country's economy, bruised by the pandemic, back on track, deal with rising violent crimes in Arab communities and perceived threats from Iran. Israel is trying diplomatically to block the revival of the 2015 nuclear agreement with Iran, which the new US administration generally favours.

The writer is a former Editor of PTI and served nas the West Asia correspondent for the same. Views expressed are personal

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