As Israel appeared to have reached yet another stalemate in its fourth elections in two years, Benjamin Netanyahu's opponents on Thursday revived talk of disqualifying an indicted politician from forming a government, a measure aimed at barring the long-serving prime minister from returning to office.
A similar bill was floated after the March 2020 elections, but was never passed.
Netanyahu is on trial for fraud, breach of trust and accepting bribes in three cases. He has denied any wrongdoing and dismissed the charges as a witch-hunt by a biased law enforcement and media.
Despite the charges against him, Netanyahu's Likud received around a quarter of the votes, making it the largest party in the next Knesset.
But with 99% of the vote counted, Netanyahu was unable to reach the 61-MK bloc he needs to form his religious, right-wing government, leaving him dependent on defections from other parties or backing from the Islamist Ra'am.
The latter option has already been rejected by Netanyahu's new partners on the extreme right who would not entertain an alliance with an Arab party even if was merely external support.
The near-final results published Thursday evening by the Central Elections Committee reaffirmed that no camp has enough seats to form a stable coalition.
Gideon Saar, a Likud defector who now heads a six-seat party committed to ousting him, said Thursday that, "it is clear that Netanyahu does not have a majority to form a government under his leadership. Action must now be taken to realize the possibility of forming a government for change."
His words were echoed by Yisrael Beytenu leader Avigdor Liberman, another former Netanyahu ally.
"I am obligated to do everything I can in order prevent another election," Liberman said.
"The first step will be to pass legislation to prevent an indicted Knesset member from forming a government. I expect all those who spoke of change in recent months to display responsibility and back this legislation," he said.
The Likud fired back, saying such a block would be anti-democratic and compared Netanyahu's opponents to the clerical leadership in Iran, which vets candidates for high office.
A total of 13 parties have received enough votes to enter parliament, the most since the 2003 election, and represent a variety of ultra-Orthodox, Arab, secular, nationalist, and liberal factions.
While Netanyahu faces a struggle to form a government, the bloc committed to removing him is experiencing a similar shortfall having mustered just 59 seats. Like Netanyahu it needs Ra'am to put it over the 61-MK mark.
Yohanan Plesner, president of the Israel Democracy Institute, said that the stalemate was Israel's "worst political crisis in decades."
"It's apparent that our political system finds it very difficult to produce a decisive outcome," Plesner said.
He added that inherent weaknesses in Israel's electoral system are compounded by "the Netanyahu factor" of a popular prime minister struggling to stay in power while under indictment.
"Israelis are split right down the middle on this question," he said.
According to the CEC, Likud has won 30 seats; Yesh Atid 17; Shas 9; Blue & White 8; Labor, Yamina, United Torah Judaism and Yisrael Beytenu have seven apiece; Joint List, Religious Zionist, Meretz and New Hope have 6 seats each; and Ra'am has 4 seats.
Voter turnout was 67.4%. A final tally of the votes was expected to be completed by Friday morning.