Israelis Brace for a New Election. The Real Contest May Come Later.

JERUSALEM — Voters in Israel are as split as ever. The main candidates, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of the conservative Likud party and Benny Gantz of the centrist Blue and White, are unchanged. Campaign slogans from April’s inconclusive election have been resurrected. Mr. Netanyahu, billboards declare, is still in a “different league.”

But on Thursday, when the deadline passed for parties to register and the final lineup became known, Israelis already seemed to be looking past the do-over election on Sept. 17 to the bruising coalition negotiations that are expected to follow.

Polls again show Likud and Blue and White are neck and neck — raising the potential of another unclear outcome two months after Mr. Netanyahu couldn’t form a governing coalition following the first vote.

In Israel’s parliamentary system, no single party has ever won an outright majority. Analysts suggest that the usual right-wing-religious and center-left blocs may not be able to muster a 61-seat majority in Parliament on their own at this point — so they may have to resort to new political marriages to form a government.

“The election might not decide things,” said Reuven Hazan, a professor of political science at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. “Then we have to hope the leading politicians in the leading parties understand that you don’t take a country to a third election for no reason.”

A failure to form a government after the September vote would set off yet another election, one that analysts say would produce several more months of political paralysis and further sap the country’s attention and resources.

The main disrupter — and potential kingmaker — is Avigdor Lieberman, the leader of the ultranationalist party Yisrael Beiteinu, who had long backed Mr. Netanyahu but refused to join his government after April’s vote, dooming a potential coalition.

ImageAvigdor Lieberman, center, the leader of the ultranationalist Yisrael Beiteinu.
CreditAmir Levy/Getty Images

And in a dizzying display of merging and name-changing, smaller parties are also repositioning themselves for the September vote, and the coalition talks to follow.

Last time around, Mr. Netanyahu and his “natural partners” — the smaller right-wing and religious parties — came up one short of a majority in the 120-seat Parliament, a stunning setback for the Israeli leader, who had prematurely declared victory.

The Blue and White party of Mr. Gantz, a former military chief and political neophyte, had drawn even with Likud in the April vote, with each party winning 35 seats. But Mr. Netanyahu dissolved Parliament after his coalition talks failed, denying Mr. Gantz a chance to form a government. New elections were set for September.

Mr. Netanyahu has spent the last decade in office, and 13 years over all. Recently, as head of a caretaker government, he passed his personal milestone of becoming Israel’s longest-serving prime minister since David Ben-Gurion, the country’s founding leader.

But Mr. Netanyahu still faces possible indictment on bribery and other corruption charges, has a hearing with the attorney general set for early October and could be charged by the end of the year. This makes it all the more critical for him to remain in office, where he may have a chance of immunity from prosecution.

On both the right and left, smaller parties are combining to ensure that they meet the vote threshold to qualify to enter Parliament.

The New Right, established by the former right-wing ministers Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked, has rejoined an alliance with Jewish Home, forming the United Right, with Ms. Shaked at the helm. The breakaway center-right Kulanu has melted back into Likud.

On the left, Labor got a new-old leader, Amir Peretz, a former defense minister, and it has joined forces with Gesher, a faction focused on social and economic issues. Former Prime Minister Ehud Barak, despite his entanglement with Jeffrey Epstein, the American financier charged with sex trafficking, has merged his Israel Democratic slate with Meretz to form the Democratic Union.

CreditAbir Sultan/EPA, via Shutterstock

And four predominantly Arab factions that ran in two paired sets in the last election have come together to run as the Joint List, as they did once before.

But it is Mr. Lieberman who is most closely watched.

The ultranationalist Lieberman has rebranded himself as a liberal champion fighting religious coercion by ultra-Orthodox politicians and others whom he scathingly describes as “Messianists.”

After the April election, Mr. Lieberman refused to join a government with the ultra-Orthodox factions because of legislation he supported, and they opposed, that would have subjected more yeshiva students to military service. Mr. Lieberman now pledges to support only a leader willing to form a “broad, liberal” government of national unity.

That positions the fickle Mr. Lieberman as a powerful player, though he runs the risk that the major parties may come up with some other combination or gain enough support to form a coalition without him.

For now, Blue and White, Labor and the Democratic Union parties have pledged not to sit in a government with Mr. Netanyahu as long as he is under a legal cloud and facing indictment.

Another wild card may be Ayman Odeh, the leader of the Joint List, the predominantly Arab alliance. Traditionally, Arab parties have not taken an active role in supporting one Jewish candidate over another for prime minister and have never joined, or been invited to join, a governing coalition.

This time, Mr. Odeh seems not to be ruling out either.

“First of all, we want to topple Benjamin Netanyahu, right?” Mr. Odeh said in an interview on Thursday. If Mr. Gantz were to come to him and say he was forming a government dedicated to peace and equality, Mr. Odeh said, “There is no doubt we will help.”

But if there is one lesson from the April ballot, Tal Schneider, the political and diplomatic correspondent for Globes, an Israeli financial newspaper, said in an interview, it’s that there is not likely to be a winner or a loser when the polls close on Sept. 17. The six to eight weeks of negotiations after Election Day are part of the contest.

Last time, Ms. Schneider said, “Both Netanyahu and Gantz gave victory speeches. If they are smart, neither will this time.”

Girl AAT

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