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Netanyahu wins record fifth term as PM

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Israeli Prime Minister and the Likud Party leader Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during his party’s election campaign in Ramat Gan near Tel Aviv on March 4. Xinhua

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has won the Israeli national election, securing a record fifth term in office, TV Channel 12 said yesterday.

With 96 percent of the votes counted, Mr Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud won 37 of Knesset seats, against 36 for centrist Blue and White, headed by his rival, former general Benny Gantz.

Though neither party captured a ruling majority in the 120-member Knesset, the results, published eight hours after voting ended on Tuesday, put Mr Netanyahu in a strong position to form a coalition government with right-wing factions.

The closely contested race was widely seen in Israel as a referendum on Mr Netanyahu’s character and record in the face of corruption allegations. He faces possible indictment in three graft cases, and has denied wrongdoing in all of them.

“It is a night of colossal victory,” 69-year-old Mr Netanyahu told cheering supporters in a late-night speech at Likud headquarters, while cautioning that a “long night and possibly day” lay ahead awaiting official results.

Fireworks flared behind him as his wife Sara applauded and kissed him. “He’s a magician,” the crowd chanted.

Final results were expected by tomorrow, though the provisional results showed 65 of the Knesset’s 120 seats would go to the right-wing bloc of parties led by Mr Netanyahu, against a total of 55 seats for center-left factions.

If he wins, Mr Netanyahu will be on track to be the longest-serving prime minister in Israel’s 71-year history. He said he had already begun talks with prospective coalition allies.

In power since 2009, and having led the country for a total 13 years including his first term in the 1990s, Mr Netanyahu has been fighting for his political survival.

He faces possible indictment in three graft cases. He has denied any wrongdoing.

Rival Gantz, a popular 59-year-old former general, had also claimed victory earlier, citing preliminary exit polls published soon after voting ended on Tuesday that showed his party had won more seats than Likud.

“We are the victors,” said Mr Gantz, a former military chief fighting his first election. “We want to thank Benjamin Netanyahu for his service to the nation.”

Despite both men claiming victory on Tuesday night, a clearer picture emerged by yesterday morning as the results began streaming in, painting Netanyahu as the winner.

During the campaign, the rival parties accused each other of corruption, fostering bigotry and being soft on security.

Mr Netanyahu highlighted his close relationship with US President Donald Trump, who delighted Israelis and angered Palestinians by recognising Jerusalem as Israel’s capital in 2017 and moving the American Embassy to the holy city last May.

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.

In a rare turn during the race towards the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Mr Netanyahu further alarmed Palestinians by pledged 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.

Mr Netanyahu’s pre-election promise 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 advocate for annexation.

Mr Trump is expected to release his administration’s long-awaited Middle East peace plan after the election. If it includes Israeli concessions to the Palestinians, Mr Netanyahu’s probable far-right coalition allies will likely object.

A close result in the election would put smaller parties in a powerful position, turning marginal political figures into kingmakers.

Once the votes are tallied, President Reuven Rivlin will ask parties that have won parliamentary seats who they support for prime minister. He will then 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.

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