Netanyahu appeared poised for a historic fifth term as prime minister with nearly all the ballots counted from Tuesday's vote. Official final results were expected Thursday. With 97.4% of the vote counted, Netanyahu's Likud and the rival Blue and White were deadlocked with a projected 35 seats apiece in the 120-seat parliament. But Likud and its traditional political allies were in command of a 65-55 majority in the Knesset, Israel's parliament.
A couple of small parties were still teetering on the electoral threshold and fighting for survival, so the final makeup of the next parliament could still change slightly. Blue and White, led by former military chief of staff Benny Gantz and Yair Lapid, a former Netanyahu Cabinet minister, got about 26% of the vote — a shade less than Netanyahu's Likud.
Lapid, the party's No. 2 leader, said Blue and White would "show the people of Israel what a real alternative looks like." "We did not win in this round. I respect the voters, and I respect their decision, but I look around and see the ultimate tool for victory in the next round," Lapid said at a news conference alongside Gantz and two other former military chiefs who led Blue and White.
The outcome affirmed Israel's continued tilt to the right and further dimmed hopes of a negotiated solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It also will give Netanyahu an important boost as he braces for the possibility of criminal charges in a series of corruption scandals.
President Donald Trump called Netanyahu to congratulate him, saying that with the victory, "I think we'll see some pretty good action in terms of peace." "Look, everyone said — and I never made it a promise — but everybody said you can't have peace in the Middle East with Israel and the Palestinians," Trump said. "And I think we have, now, a better chance with Bibi having won."
Lapid vowed that Blue and White would "embitter the lives" of Netanyahu and his allies from the opposition, and push for investigations into other allegations of corruption by the long-reigning premier.
"We are going to turn the Knesset into a battleground," Lapid said. Two of Netanyahu's potential allies, hawkish former Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman and economic-centric Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon, have yet to formally confirm they would sit with Netanyahu and could emerge as wild cards. In any case, the country faces what could be weeks of political negotiations over the composition of a ruling coalition.
But under nearly every scenario, Netanyahu was the big winner. He had fought a tight, ugly race against Gantz, whose new party emerged as a viable alternative to Netanyahu's decade in power. But most of its support seems to have come at the expense of the venerable Labor and leftist Meretz parties, which both earned historic lows in the election.
Gantz, who had declared victory on election night, said Wednesday his party would "respect the decision of the people and we will respect the decision of the president." The spotlight now falls on President Reuven Rivlin, who will consult with party representatives next week before picking the candidate with the best chance of assembling a parliamentary majority.
Together with his current Jewish ultra-Orthodox and nationalist partners, Netanyahu seemed to have a clear path toward building a coalition government that has a majority in parliament. Rivlin said that for the first time, his discussions with party leaders would be broadcast on live television "in the name of transparency."
With a victory, Netanyahu would capture a fourth consecutive term and fifth overall, which this summer will make him Israel's longest-ever serving leader, surpassing founding father David Ben-Gurion. "It's a night of tremendous victory," Netanyahu told supporters early Wednesday, adding that he had already begun talking to fellow right-wing and religious parties about forming a coalition.
Netanyahu's message of unity contrasted with his campaign theme in which he accused Gantz of conspiring with Arab parties to topple him. Arab leaders accused Netanyahu of demonizing the country's Arab community, which is about 20% of the population.
His attacks on the Arab sector fueled calls for a boycott and appeared to result in relatively low turnout by Arab voters. Though the Palestinian issue was rarely mentioned in the raucous campaign, Netanyahu in the final stretch pledged for the first time to annex parts of the occupied West Bank in a desperate bid to rally his right-wing base. Netanyahu has reneged on election eve promises before, but should he follow through on this one, it would mark a dramatic development and potentially wipe out the already diminishing hope for Palestinian statehood.
Ahmed Majdalani, an aide to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, said the Palestinians will seek the help of the international community to try to block any such plans. He said that the outcome of the election means a boost for what he called the "extreme right-wing camp" in Israeli politics.
Hanan Ashrawi, a senior Palestinian official, said Israel chose to entrench "the status quo of oppression, occupation, annexation and dispossession." The 69-year-old Netanyahu has been the dominant force in Israeli politics for the past two decades. His campaign has focused heavily on his friendship with Trump and his success in cultivating new allies, such as China, India and Brazil.
But his corruption scandals created some voter fatigue. Gantz was able to challenge Netanyahu on security issues, normally the prime minister's strong suit, while also taking aim at his alleged ethical lapses.
Israel's attorney general has recommended charging Netanyahu with bribery, breach of trust and fraud in three cases, and a potential fourth case emerged during the campaign. He will only decide on indicting Netanyahu after a legally mandated hearing. Legal experts expect at least some charges to be filed, which could result in a short term in office for Netanyahu and another round of elections.
"This is a clear beginning of Netanyahu's fifth term, but his fifth term might end up being his shortest one", says Reuven Hazan, a political scientist from Jerusalem's Hebrew University. "In another year, we might be in a battle for either leadership of the Likud or another election."
Associated Press writer Aron Heller contributed.
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