Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has secured another clear path to government, with conservative religious parties set to hand him a parliamentary majority despite a close contest from his main centrist challenger, Benny Gantz.
- Mr Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud party will be able to form a majority in parliament
- US President Donald Trump has called to congratulate the Prime Minister
- Mr Netanyahu faces corruption allegations, but it is unclear if he will be indicted
With more than 97 per cent of votes counted — ballots cast by soldiers at military bases will be tallied over the next two days — Mr Netanyahu’s conservative Likud party looked likely to muster enough support to control 65 of the Israeli parliament’s 120 seats, and be named as the head of the next coalition government.
It would be Mr Netanyahu’s record fifth term as Prime Minister.
US President Donald Trump, who featured on Likud campaign billboards, phoned the incumbent to congratulate him on his re-election, Mr Netanyahu said.
He thanked the US President for his “tremendous support for Israel”.
Mr Trump told reporters at the White House that Netanyahu’s re-election improved the chances of peace between Israel and the Palestinians.
“He’s been a great ally and he’s a friend. I’d like to congratulate him on a well-thought-out race,” Mr Trump said.
Israeli President Reuven Rivlin said on Twitter he would begin meeting next week with political parties that won parliamentary seats to hear who they support for the top job.
At the sessions — which will be broadcast live — Mr Rivlin will pick a party leader to try to form a coalition, giving the candidate 28 days to do so, with a two-week extension if needed.
‘He’s a magician’
The close and often vitriolic contest was widely seen in Israel as a referendum on Mr Netanyahu’s character and record in the face of corruption allegations.
During the campaign, the rival parties accused each other of corruption, fostering bigotry and being soft on security.
Tweet: Trump Bibi
The Prime Minister faces possible indictment in three graft cases, and has denied wrongdoing in all of them.
Despite that, Mr Netanyahu gained four seats compared to his outgoing coalition government, according to a spreadsheet published by the Central Elections Committee.
“It is a night of colossal victory,” the 69-year-old Mr Netanyahu told cheering supporters in a late-night speech at Likud headquarters in Tel Aviv after the vote.
“He’s a magician!,” the crowd chanted.
Tel Aviv Stock Exchange main indexes were up nearly 1 per cent in late trading on Wednesday, displaying confidence in a veteran leader who has overseen a humming economy and blunted various security threats, including from Syria.
His challenger, the new Blue and White party of ex-army chief Benny Gantz, claimed a more modest victory after winning a 35-seat tie with Likud.
Should Mr Netanyahu retain the helm, he will in July become the longest-serving Israeli prime minister, overtaking the country’s founding father, David Ben-Gurion.
That could be scuppered if criminal charges are filed and force his removal.
Corruption clouds linger over Netanyahu’s term
An indictment decision would follow a review hearing where Mr Netanyahu can be expected to argue he should be spared in the national interest.
Some analysts predict he may try to pass a law granting himself immunity, as a sitting leader, from trial.
In showcasing his close ties with Mr Trump during the race, Mr Netanyahu sought to tap into the president’s popularity among Israelis, who delighted in his recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital in 2017 and the subsequent transfer of the US embassy there from Tel Aviv.
Two weeks before the election, Mr Trump signed a proclamation with Mr Netanyahu at his side at the White House, recognising Israeli sovereignty over the occupied Golan Heights captured from Syria in the 1967 Middle East war.
Netanyahu may annex West Bank settlements
In a rare turn during the race towards the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Mr Netanyahu further alarmed Palestinians by pledging to annex Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank if re-elected.
Palestinians seek a state there and in the Gaza Strip, with East Jerusalem as its capital.
A team led by Mr Trump’s adviser and son-in-law Jared Kushner has been working on an Israeli-Palestinian peace plan, but they have not disclosed details.
Palestinians, angered by what they see as Mr Trump’s pro-Israel bias, have called it a non-starter.
This pre-election promise from Mr Netanyahu was widely seen as an attempt to draw right-wing votes rather than a change of policy.
But with Mr Trump’s moves on Jerusalem and the Golan, the Prime Minister may feel emboldened to complete annexation.
Commenting on the election, Palestinian chief negotiator Saeb Erekat said:
“Israelis have voted to preserve the status quo. They have said no to peace and yes to the occupation”.
The last round of US-brokered peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians collapsed in 2014.