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Israeli election: Netanyahu, challenger Gantz at stalemate

By Daniel Uria & Darryl Coote
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Israeli election: Netanyahu, challenger Gantz at stalemate
Early exit polls in Israel's general election show Benjamin Netanyahu, Israeli prime minister and chairman of the Likud Party, in a dead heat with Benny Gantz of the Blue and White Party. Photo by Abir Sultan/EPA-EFE

Sept. 18 (UPI) -- Preliminary results in Israel's re-run parliamentary election showed Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was at a stalemate with challenger ex-military head Benny Gantz with neither garnering enough support to cobble together a majority coalition government.

According to preliminary results by the Central Election Committee, both Netanyahu's Likud Party and Gantz's Blue and White Party had earned 32 seats in the 120-seat legislative body, with a simple majority of 61 required to pass laws and achieve other governmental tasks.

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The preliminary results appear to give Netanyahu's right-religious bloc a total of 56 seats to Gantz's center-left Arab bloc's 55.

The heated race attracted a higher than expected 69.4 percent of eligible voters despite it being the second election in five months.

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Avigdor Liberman, leader of the Yisrael Beiteinu Party, which garnered nine seats, said the results show only option: to create "a broad unity government."

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"The picture is clear and one seat here or there won't make any difference," he said, The Times of Israel reported.

The result is a setback for Netanyahu, the country's longest-serving leader who was seeking a fifth term in office, who caused the re-election after he failed to form a coalition government in the April 9 election. For weeks leading up to Tuesday, Netanyahu had been campaigning against several candidates looking to end his reign.

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Despite the preliminary results showing he'll be unable to form a majority coalition, Netanyahu promised Wednesday morning from the Tel Aviv Expo Center that he would "go on serving the state of Israel and the people of Israel."

He said Israel needs "a strong government, a stable government a Zionist government, a government that is committed to Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people."

Meanwhile, Gantz declared he would work on forming a broad national unity government.

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"According to the current results, the Israeli public put their faith in us for the second time," Gantz said at the party's election night headquarters in Tel Aviv. "No to incitement and division, yes to unity. No to corruption and yes to clean hands. No to attempts to destroy Israeli democracy and yes to statesmanship and Israel as a democratic Jewish state."

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He added he has already spoken with leaders of left-wing parties about forming a coalition.

Speaking about half an hour after Gantz, Netanyahu said all of his Likud Party's current coalition partners were willing to form a new coalition.

"We will stand united in the missions ahead for Likud and for Israel," he said. "We are still waiting for the true results but one thing is clear: The state of Israel is at a historical juncture ahead of great security and diplomatic challenges and opportunities."

Tuesday's vote was ordered in May after Netanyahu failed to form a coalition government. In the last election, Netanyahu's Likud Party and the opposing Blue and White Party, led by Gantz, each won 35 seats -- and Gantz just narrowly missed election as prime minister. The Likud Party won with 26.5 percent to the Blue and White Party's 26.1 percent.

Several polling stations in Israel were closed temporarily because of various illegal activity, officials said. One in Umm al-Fahm closed after an election observer was seen attempting to film activity.

Police said the observer was replaced and the ballot re-opened without incident.

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Three polling stations in Yarka closed after reports of voters attempting to cast more than one ballot, and some trying to vote under another name.

There have also been multiple reports of polling irregularities.

Netanyahu said there have been attempts by his opponents to steal the election. His Likud Party focused its investigation on Arab areas where he faces the most opposition.

Netanyahu promised this month that should he win again, he will annex the Jordan Valley and the northern Dead Sea -- a pledge that has drawn considerable criticism, particularly from Palestinian leaders as much of the territory in the areas is Palestinian.

Also, the Trump administration has promised to unveil its full Mideast peace plan after Tuesday's vote -- which Netanyahu said will provide him a "historic opportunity" to extend Israeli sovereignty over the West Bank.

White House adviser Jared Kushner and Jason Greenblatt have been two of the lead designers of the U.S. plan. Greenblatt announced earlier this month he's leaving the administration to return to the private sector.

Trump and Netanyahu spoke by phone last weekend and also discussed the possibility of a mutual defense treaty.

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Palestinians, 430,000 of whom have Israeli residency but are unable to vote in the elections, are concerned about the possibility of Netanyahu remaining in power, believing his expansion plans threaten the possibility of an independent Palestinian state.

Michigan Rep. Ilhan Omar, a longtime critic of Netanyahu, said over the weekend she hopes that Israeli voters recognize the contradictory nature of his policies and rhetoric.

"For many of us in Congress, it has been a longstanding support for a two-state solution and this annexation now is going to make sure that that peace process does not happen and we will not get to a two-state solution," she said.

Should he fail to win re-election Tuesday, Netanyahu faces potential legal consequences -- over accusations of fraud, bribery and breach of trust from three former confidants. Up to this point, he has dismissed investigations into the purported misconduct as "a terrible witch hunt" -- but being unseated as prime minister would open him to potential prosecution.

Netanyahu held an emergency meeting recently with the head of Israel's Central Elections Committee on election security amid reports he was concerned about alleged election irregularities in the Arab sector.

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After a winner is chosen, he will have 42 days to form a coalition government.

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