Jerusalem: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was on track for victory in Israel’s election on Wednesday after nearly complete results put him in position to form a right-wing coalition and further extend his long tenure in office.
The results from Tuesday’s vote came despite corruption allegations against the 69-year-old premier and placed him on a path to become Israel’s longest-serving prime minister later this year.
His close ally President Donald Trump, who has swung US policy sharply in Israel’s favour and openly backed Netanyahu, said the prime minister’s victory gives the White House’s long-awaited peace plan a “better chance.”
Netanyahu’s Likud party looked set to finish with a similar number of seats in parliament to his main rival, ex-military chief Benny Gantz’s centrist Blue and White alliance.
But the results showed the Likud and other right-wing parties allied to the prime minister with some 65 seats in the 120-seat parliament.
Final results were expected on Thursday, with ballots for soldiers and other special categories of voters yet to be counted.
The results would seem to leave President Reuven Rivlin, who must ask one of the candidates to form a government, with little choice but to pick Netanyahu.
Intensive coalition negotiations will follow and could drag on for days or even weeks.
Rivlin said he would begin consultations with party heads next week ahead of making his decision.
His office said that to show transparency the consultations would be broadcast live in their entirety for the first time.
The close race between the two main parties had led to uncertainty after polls closed Tuesday night and exit surveys were released.
Both Netanyahu and Gantz claimed victory after the initial exit surveys that gave Blue and White the most seats.
But even then Netanyahu appeared best placed to form a coalition, with both parties falling far short of an outright majority.
– ‘Magnificent victory’ –
Netanyahu spoke in the early hours of Wednesday at the Likud’s post-election party in Tel Aviv and called it a “magnificent victory.”
As he walked onto the stage to chanting crowds, he planted a kiss on the lips of his wife Sara.
“It will be a right-wing government, but I will be prime minister for all,” he said.
Earlier while addressing cheering supporters who waved Israeli flags at an event hall in Tel Aviv, Gantz urged Rivlin to ask him to form the government.
But speaking to journalists outside his home on Wednesday morning, Gantz backed away without fully conceding.
“We’re waiting until the end of the results,” he said.
“This is a historic accomplishment. There has never been a party so large, so significant, with so many good people that was founded in such a short period of time.”
The vote had long been expected to be close, even with Netanyahu facing potential corruption charges.
Fighting for his political life, Netanyahu spent the weeks ahead of the vote campaigning furiously to energise his right-wing base.
Besides Trump, other Netanyahu allies including Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Italy’s Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini and Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz offered congratulations.
Gantz, a newcomer to politics, mounted a strong challenge by brandishing his security credentials while pledging to undo damage he says Netanyahu has inflicted on the country with divisive politics.
The election was in many ways a referendum on the premier who has built a reputation as guarantor of the country’s security and economic growth, but whose populism and alleged corruption left many ready for change.
He engaged in populist rhetoric critics said amounted to the demonisation of Arab Israelis and others.
True to form, Netanyahu issued a controversial pledge only three days before the election, saying he planned to annex Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank should he win.
Extending Israeli sovereignty on a large scale in the West Bank could end already fading hopes for a two-state solution with the Palestinians.
It is a move long championed by Israel’s far right.
– ‘King Bibi’ –
Netanyahu sought to portray himself as Israel’s essential statesman during the campaign and highlighted his bond with Trump.
He spoke of Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and of Israel’s claim of sovereignty over the annexed Golan Heights.
Trump’s plan for Israeli-Palestinian peace is expected to be released in the coming weeks.
Netanyahu also used Trump-like tactics, calling the corruption investigations a “witch hunt” and denouncing journalists covering them.
Gantz, a 59-year-old former paratrooper, invoked the corruption allegations against the premier to make his case that it was time for him to go.
He called Netanyahu’s annexation pledge an “irresponsible” bid for votes.
Gantz said he favoured a “globally backed peace agreement” with Israel holding on to the large West Bank settlement blocs, adding he opposed unilateral moves.
He sought to overcome Netanyahu’s experience by allying with two other former military chiefs and ex-finance minister Yair Lapid.
Netanyahu has been premier for a total of more than 13 years.
But “King Bibi,” as some have called him, now faces the prospect of becoming the first sitting prime minister to be indicted.
The attorney general has announced he intends to charge Netanyahu with bribery, fraud and breach of trust pending an upcoming hearing.