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Unlikely bedfellows hold key to new Netanyahu term

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Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been dubbed "the magician" for his political skills but even he will be hard put to bring far-right Jewish nationalists and Islamic conservatives under the same coalition roof.

With the full results from Tuesday's general election, Netanyahu needs the support of both the Islamic conservative Raam party and the far-right Religious Zionism party, which is openly hostile to Arabs and Muslims, to extend his premiership.

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"It's historic, it's ironic... it's absurd" to see the political future of the only Jewish state in the world linked to that of part of the Islamic Movement, said Gayil Talshir.

The professor of political science at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem is an old hand at tracking the convulsions of a country that has just held its fourth election in less than two years.

But even she is almost lost for words this time.

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Full results of the latest vote, Israel's second since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, were published Thursday night.

After calculating the distribution of parliamentary seats under Israel's system of proportional representation, they showed Netanyahu's right-wing Likud party in a strong first place with 30 of the 120 seats in parliament.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, leader of the Likud party, waves to supporters at the party campaign headquarters in Jerusalem early on March 24, 2021, after the end of voting in the fourth national election in two years. (Photo by EMMANUEL DUNAND / AFP)


The centrist Yesh Atid was a distant second, with 17 seats.

Below them is a scrum of parties with wildly different agendas: Israeli Arabs, ultra-Orthodox Jews, leftists, conservatives, and extreme right-wingers.

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Netanyahu and his declared right-wing allies command 52 seats, while Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid and his potential anti-Netanyahu partners have 57.

Each side is scrambling to reach the holy grail of 61 seats needed for a majority.

To retain the premiership, which he has held for 12 consecutive years, Netanyahu must woo defectors from opposing parties or recruit one of two currently non-aligned "kingmakers" to back him.

One, Naftali Bennett, is a leader of the Jewish hard right, while the other is Mansour Abbas, head of the Raam party, which surprised analysts by winning four seats.

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Not only must Netanyahu find common ground between the unlikely bedfellows, but he must also do so without losing one of his allies, the far-right Religious Zionism party.

"It's totally bizarre to see that Mansour Abbas could allow the most Islamophobic elements of the country to be in government," Talshir told AFP.

Bizarre as it may be, she sees it nevertheless as a plausible scenario.

"Abbas is playing tactically," she said. In return for formally backing Netanyahu for prime minister, the premier "will promise Abbas things that Abbas wants in terms of budget and a programme for the Arab sector".

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Raam would then vote in parliament with a future Netanyahu government, without being a formal part of it.

- Bargaining -
The Religious Zionism's Itamar Ben Gvir -- indicted dozens of times for inciting racism and supporting anti-Arab terrorism -- on Thursday rejected any pact with Abbas.

"But that is not the last word," political journalist Sima Kadmon said in the top-selling Israeli daily Yediot Aharonot.

"Netanyahu is known for his ability to squeeze water from a stone," she said, adding that he could yet persuade the Jewish right to accept help from an Islamic party.

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"He will assure them that in the future he will change the composition of the government. He will promise them the moon."

Amid the shifting sands of the post-election landscape, Abbas too will set out his stall.

He "can flirt with all parties," said Amal Jamal, professor of political science at the University of Tel Aviv.

Lapid could also raise the stakes by trying to form a government supported by both of Israel's Arab-led parties, Raam and the rival Joint List.

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To enlist them both on the same side, Lapid will need plenty of imagination and persuasion.

Raam ran as part of the Joint List in elections a year ago but broke away over differences with its communist and secular nationalist components.

The backing of both could make Lapid the future prime minister of Israel.

However, some of Lapid's potential partners from the anti-Netanyahu right are opposed to seeing an Israeli government dependent on Arab support.

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Abbas, looking to make the most of his party's current status, told AFP Friday that its electoral success has put it in the position of "kingmaker".

"I said that once we became an independent, self-confident and effective political force, broad options will be open to us," he said.

"The interests of our Arab community will be the parameters of the final decision," he added.

"Israel is in the midst of a serious political crisis" that will continue if the various political forces "do not understand that the Arab parties have a role to play."

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