By Jeffrey Heller
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu secured a clear path to re-election on Wednesday, with religious-rightist parties set to hand him a parliamentary majority despite a close contest against his main centrist challenger, a vote tally showed.
With more than 97 per cent of votes counted – ballots cast by soldiers at military bases will be tallied over the next two days – Netanyahu’s conservative Likud party looked likely to muster enough support to control 65 of the Knesset’s 120 seats and be named to head the next coalition government.
It would be Netanyahu’s record fifth term as premier.
US President Donald Trump, who Netanyahu featured on campaign billboards to highlight their close relationship, phoned Netanyahu to congratulate him on his re-election, Netanyahu said, thanking his American ally for “tremendous support for Israel”.
Netanyahu tweeted that Trump had called him from Air Force One. The president was on a flight to Texas.
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,” Trump said.
A team led by Trump’s adviser and son-in-law Jared Kushner has been working on an Israeli-Palestinian peace plan, but it has not disclosed details. Palestinians, angered by what they see as Trump’s pro-Israel bias, have called it a non-starter.
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 prime minister.
At the sessions, which Rivlin said would be broadcast live “to ensure transparency”, 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.
The close and often vitriolic contest was widely seen in Israel as a referendum on 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.
Despite that, Netanyahu gained four seats compared to his outgoing coalition government, according to a spreadsheet published by the Central Elections Committee of parties that garnered enough votes to enter the next parliament.
“It is a night of colossal victory,” the 69-year-old Netanyahu told cheering supporters in a late-night speech at Likud headquarters in Tel Aviv after Tuesday’s vote.
“He’s a magician!” the crowd chanted as fireworks flared and Netanyahu kissed his wife Sara.
Tel Aviv Stock Exchange main indexes were up nearly 1 percent in late trading on Wednesday, displaying confidence in a veteran prime minister 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. Unless he reverses on campaign pledges to shun Netanyahu, and joins him in a broad coalition, Gantz looked destined to lead a centre-left parliamentary opposition.
“The skies may look overcast … but they cannot conceal the sun of hope that we have brought to the Israeli people and society,” Gantz, 59, wrote in an open letter to supporters.
Should 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.
An indictment decision would follow a review hearing where 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.
During the campaign, the rival parties accused each other of corruption, fostering bigotry and being soft on security.
In showcasing his close ties with Trump during the race, 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 transfer of the US Embassy to the holy city last May from Tel Aviv.
Two weeks before the election, Trump signed a proclamation, with 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, 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.
This pre-election promise from Netanyahu was widely seen as an attempt to draw right-wing votes rather than a change of policy. But with Trump’s moves on Jerusalem and the Golan, the prime minister may feel emboldened to advocate 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.
Trump is expected to release his administration’s Middle East peace plan after the election. If it includes Israeli concessions to the Palestinians, Netanyahu’s probable far-right coalition allies will likely object.