(Bloomberg) -- Israel went to the polls for Tuesday’s election do-over a fiercely divided nation, with no definitive sign whether legally embattled Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will retain his grip on power.
While the latest opinion surveys gave Netanyahu a bump, they still suggest he’ll struggle to put together a parliamentary majority without secularist former Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman, a onetime ally who refused to join his government following the April 9 election.
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Liberman, long seen as this election’s kingmaker, had slipped in recent polls, and sentiment could still shift further in the premier’s favor. If it turns out Netanyahu does need his fickle friend, the real drama will come as he tries to peel off lawmakers from the opposing camp -- or be forced out if he fails.
“It could end with another stalemate, and several weeks during which the president taps someone to form a government and he runs into obstacles,” said Yoram Meital, a political scientist at Ben-Gurion University. “It’s a very polarized political landscape, and it’s too early to predict how it will end.”
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Netanyahu’s uncertain prospects come at a bad time for him personally, as he tries to head off possible corruption charges, and for his plans to quash Iranian and Palestinian ambitions.
With his political survival at stake, Netanyahu was busy on election day trotting out tried-and-true ploys to propel Israeli nationalists to the polls: turning the liberal left and non-Zionist, Israeli Arab leaders into bogeymen.
“Voters of the right, have you lost your minds?” Netanyahu said on Twitter. “Go out now and vote Likud in order to stop a left-wing government with the Arab parties.”
Netanyahu has also made a bid for nationalist votes by promising to annex parts of the West Bank, a move Israel has shunned for more than 50 years.
Jordan’s King Abdullah II, speaking at a news conference in Berlin on Tuesday, said he was “extremely concerned” by that pledge.
“This does not help a conducive atmosphere to bringing the Israelis and Palestinians together, so these type of statements I think are a disaster to any attempt to move forward to a two-state solution,” he said at a news conference with German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
One of the Netanyahu campaign’s gambits fell afoul of Facebook, which suspended his Likud party’s chatbot for the second time in a week, this time for violating Israeli election law by publishing poll information after a Sept. 13 deadline.
“We work with Elections Commissions around the world to help protect the integrity of elections,” Facebook said. “We have restricted this bot for violating local law until the polling stations are closed tonight.” Polls close at 10 p.m. local time.
Final polls over the weekend predicted the Netanyahu-led bloc will land about 58 seats in the 120-member Knesset, with Liberman’s Yisrael Beitenu capturing eight, up from five in April but down from a high of 11. The grouping led by the premier’s chief rival, former military chief Benny Gantz, is set to secure about 53 seats, they indicated.
Staying in power could be crucial to Netanyahu’s efforts to stay out of court -- and possibly jail. He entered the race weakened by what he says are baseless graft allegations cooked up by left-wing opponents. Before coalition talks broke down, he was trying to push through new legislation granting him immunity from prosecution while in office.
The political uncertainty has dovetailed with renewed military confrontations with Iran-backed militants along Israel’s northern frontier with Lebanon and Syria, and at its southern boundary with the Hamas-run Gaza Strip. Against this backdrop, the Trump administration plans to release its Middle East peace proposal just days after Israel’s election, Netanyahu said last week.
The country’s elections-related paralysis has already delayed presentation of the plan’s political component.
The economy rarely strayed into the campaign given solid growth. But the next government will have to decide what mix of tax hikes or spending cuts is needed to bridge a widening fiscal deficit.
As long as Netanyahu wins more support in parliament, analysts expect he’ll get first crack at piecing together a coalition, even if Blue and White on its own has a slight edge over Likud.
Netanyahu says he won’t resign if coalition talks flop again. But Likud leaders might not give him another chance.
“If he doesn’t succeed, the party will oust him,” predicted Meital, the Ben-Gurion University political scientist.
(Updates with Netanyahu tweet, Facebook suspension starting in seventh paragraph.)
--With assistance from Alisa Odenheimer.
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