Deadlocked in 3 Elections, Israel Seeks Ways to Avert a 4th

JERUSALEM — With Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s supporters for another term outnumbered by lawmakers who want him gone, Israel’s political system — having cranked through the motions of a third election in less than a year only to produce another stalemate — began grappling on Wednesday with what to do next.

A nearly complete vote count showed Mr. Netanyahu’s coalition of right-wing and religious parties with 58 seats in the 120-seat Parliament, three short of a governing majority.

That leaves Israel more or less back at square one — except that Mr. Netanyahu’s trial on felony corruption charges starts on March 17, his opponents appear exhausted by a campaign in which he outclassed them to achieve a solid plurality and no one in the country appears willing to contemplate a fourth ballot.

Mr. Netanyahu’s Likud party sought to maximize its leverage as the largest faction to emerge from Monday’s election, floating the possibility of its recruiting right-leaning lawmakers from the mostly left-leaning Labor-Gesher-Meretz alliance or from the centrist Blue and White party, headed by the former army chief Benny Gantz, who was Mr. Netanyahu’s leading challenger.

But just one defector — whose political career could be ended, analysts said, by such a betrayal of the voters who elected him or her — would be a lot to ask. Three would seem a miracle, even for Mr. Netanyahu.

And the likeliest candidates to be wooed by Mr. Netanyahu all insisted they were holding fast to their promises to see him into retirement and could not be bought off, no matter the inducement.

The anti-Netanyahu forces, for their part, showed some new fight on Wednesday. Lawmakers from all three center-left parties said they would propose or support legislation to bar Israel’s president from asking a lawmaker under indictment to form a government.

Ofer Shelah, of Blue and White, said the party would pursue measures in Parliament to block Mr. Netanyahu from serving as prime minister. He noted that Israeli law now prohibits someone under indictment from serving as an ordinary government minister, but does not specifically address the prime minister’s position.

“We believe such a law is worthy,” Mr. Shelah said.

Nitzan Horowitz, leader of the left-wing Meretz party, encouraged Blue and White to “go for it,” saying, “It reflects the will of the public, and it’s the moral thing to do.”

Ahmed Tibi, of the predominantly Arab Joint List, which won a record 15 seats in Parliament on surprisingly strong turnout among Palestinian citizens of Israel, said it, too, would support such a law.

It was not clear whether Avigdor Liberman’s ultranationalist Yisrael Beiteinu party, whose support would also be needed, would join in such an effort. His party emerged with seven seats, according to the unfinished tally.

Still, the idea of such a law drew howls from Mr. Netanyahu’s supporters on the right, who said it would be retroactive and ad hominem, and would not survive a court challenge.

Ayelet Shaked, a former justice minister from the right-wing Yamina party, accused the left, “which exalts democracy,” of trying to use legislation to “cancel election results,” and “with the aid of terror supporters” at that.

The term “terror supporters” referred to the Joint List, some members of which are accused by critics of having expressed sympathy for terrorists. Mr. Tibi is widely reviled among many Israeli Jews, among other things for having been an adviser to the longtime Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat. And right-wing lawmakers tried to get another Joint List member, Heba Yazbak, disqualified from Parliament over past statements including an expression of support for a Lebanese man convicted of killing an Israeli family.

“Why go in circles? Just pass legislation that Gantz be prime minister,” Ms. Shaked taunted the center-left parties on Twitter. “Not for 4 years. For 40 years. After all, you have a majority.”

Analysts said it was unlikely that the legislation barring an indicted lawmaker from serving as prime minister would be approved, in part because of the political storm it could kick up. But several suggested that the anti-Netanyahu parties were making a point as the jockeying over coalition talks begins: They have leverage, too.

“One thing needs to be clear,” Ram Ben Barak, a lawmaker from Blue and White, told Kan radio: “We will do everything that the law allows us, and everything that politics allows us, to try to prevent Netanyahu from forming a government.”

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