Netanyahu will continue as caretaker prime minister for several more weeks until a new government is formed
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For most Israelis, the general election on Tuesday was about one thing and one thing only. Not the economy, nor the occupation, nor even corruption scandals. It was about Benjamin Netanyahu. Should he head yet another far-right government, or should his 10-year divisive rule come to an end?
Barring a last-minute upset as the final ballot papers are counted, Israelis have made their verdict clear: Netanyahu's time is up.
In April's inconclusive election, which led to this re-run, Netanyahu's Likud party tied with its main opponent in the Blue and White party, led by retired general Benny Gantz. This time Gantz appears to have nudged ahead, with 32 seats to Netanyahu's 31 in the 120-member parliament. Both parties fared worse than they did in April, when they each secured 35 seats.
But much more significantly, Netanyahu appears to have fallen short of the 61-seat majority he needs to form yet another far-right government comprising settler and religious parties.
His failure is all the more glaring, given that he conducted by far the ugliest and most reckless campaign in Israeli history. That was because the stakes were sky-high.
Only a government of the far-right one entirely beholden to Netanyahu could be relied on to pass legislation guaranteeing him immunity from a legal process due to begin next month. Without it, he is likely to be indicted on multiple charges of fraud and breach of trust.
So desperate was Netanyahu to avoid that fate, according to reports published in the Israeli media on election day, that he was only a hair's breadth away from launching a war on Gaza last week as a way to postpone the election.
Israel's chief law officer, attorney general Avichai Mendelblit, stepped in to halt the attack when he discovered the security cabinet had approved it only after Netanyahu concealed the army command's major reservations.
Netanyahu also tried to bribe right-wing voters by promising last week that he would annex much of the West Bank immediately after the election a stunt that blatantly violated campaigning laws, according to Mendelblit.
Facebook was forced to shut down Netanyahu's page on two occasions for hate speech in one case after it sent out a message that "Arabs want to annihilate us all women, children and men". That sentiment appeared to include the 20 per cent of the Israeli population who are Palestinian citizens.
Netanyahu incited against the country's Palestinian minority in other ways, not least by constantly suggesting that their votes constituted fraud and that they were trying to "steal the election".
He even tried to force through a law allowing his Likud party activists to film in Arab polling stations as they covertly did in April's election in an unconcealed attempt at voter intimidation.
The move appeared to have backfired, with Palestinian citizens turning out in larger numbers than they did in April.
US President Donald Trump, meanwhile, intervened on Netanyahu's behalf by announcing the possibility of a defence pact requiring the US to come to Israel's aid in the event of a regional confrontation.
None of it helped.
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