Middle East

Israeli election: Netanyahu rival concedes election defeat

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Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's main election rival has conceded defeat making him set to further extend his long tenure in office.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has secured a clear path to re-election, with religious-rightist parties set to hand him a parliamentary majority and his main challenger conceding defeat.

With more than 99 percent 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.

The results from Tuesday's vote came despite corruption allegations against the 69-year-old premier and kept him on course to become Israel's longest-serving prime minister later this year.

Benny Gantz, the main challenger to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, said he would concede the country's election.

"We respect the decision of the people," Gantz told journalists, acknowledging his centrist Blue and White alliance had failed to unseat Netanyahu in Tuesday's poll.

The results from Tuesday's vote came despite corruption allegations against the 69-year-old Israeli Prime Minister.

His close ally President Donald Trump, who has swung US policy sharply in Israel's favour and openly backed Netanyahu, said the incumbent's victory for a fifth mandate gives the White House's long-awaited peace plan a "better chance".

Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife Sarah gesture during a victory speech following the election in Tel Aviv, Israel, early 10 April 2019.
Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife Sarah gesture during a victory speech following the election in Tel Aviv, Israel, early 10 April 2019.
EPA

Netanyahu's rightwing 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 that Likud together with other rightwing parties allied to the prime minister would hold around 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.

Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) and his wife Sarah (L) celebrate following the election in Tel Aviv, Israel.
Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) and his wife Sarah (L) celebrate following the election in Tel Aviv, Israel.
EPA

His office said 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.

Former finance minister Yair Lapid, who joined the Blue and White alliance, vowed to "make life bitter for the Netanyahu government".

Italy's Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini on Wednesday tweeted congratulations to his "friend" Netanyahu who looks.

Salvini, who is head of the far-right League, also sent a "big hug" to the Israeli people in a comment accompanied by a photograph of Salvini and Netanyahu shaking hands and smiling.

The tweet sparked anger among some social media users, who slammed him both for supporting Israeli policy and for sending his support to Netanyahu before Italy's prime minister or foreign affairs minister.

Former finance minister Yair Lapid, who joined the Blue and White alliance, vowed to "make life bitter for the Netanyahu government".

'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.

The vote had 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.

What now?

With Netanyahu's Likud and other right-wing parties projected to take around 65 seats in the 120-seat parliament, he is almost certain to be asked by President Reuven Rivlin to form a government.

After Rivlin canvases all parties he is expected to invite Netanyahu to hammer out formal coalition contracts. He will have up to 42 days in which to do it.

In addition to his natural allies, Netanyahu could invite his main challenger - centrist Blue and White - to add its 35 seats to his coalition, although that is seen as a less likely scenario.

Netanyahu faces the prospect of becoming the first sitting prime minister to be indicted.

The attorney general has announced he intends to indict him for bribery, fraud and breach of trust pending a hearing in the coming weeks.

But Netanyahu would be entitled to remain in office until his trial and any subsequent appeal process are over.

What about Gantz?

With 97 percent of the vote counted Netanyahu's main rival, ex-military chief Benny Gantz's centrist Blue and White alliance, was projected to win the same number of seats as the Likud.

Benny Gantz, former Israeli army chief of staff and candidate for Prime Minister of the Blue and White Israeli centrist political party.
Benny Gantz, former Israeli army chief of staff and candidate for Prime Minister of the Blue and White Israeli centrist political party.
EPA

But the electoral collapse of potential partners left it incapable of putting together more than 55 seats with them - not enough to take power.

Labour, in particular, crashed in flames with only six seats in the incoming parliament compared to the 24 it held previously in alliance with the centrist Hatnuah party.

Gantz is now set to become leader of the opposition in parliament, an official post.

 

Final results were expected by Thursday afternoon, adding in the ballots of soldiers and other special categories of voters.

What is likely to change?

If the preliminary results are largely confirmed, there are unlikely to be any major policy shifts. Netanyahu's outgoing government is already seen as the most right-wing in Israeli history, and the make-up of the next one may be similar.

The strengthening of the two ultra-Orthodox parties - to a combined 16 seats from 13 in the outgoing parliament - will increase their clout in government, particularly in matters of religion and state such as the fierce debate over whether ultra-Orthodox Jews should perform mandatory military service.

What about the Palestinians?

Netanyahu made a last-minute pledge ahead of the elections to annex settlements in the occupied West Bank, a move that could end remaining hopes for a two-state solution if done on a large scale.

Likud party ballot papers and Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's campaign fliers are seen on the ground after polls for Israel's general elections closed in Tel Aviv, Israel, Wednesday, April 10, 2019. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)
Likud party ballot papers and Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's campaign fliers are seen on the ground after polls for Israel's general elections.
AP

There is no sign he would back off from that approach after he forms a government. Israel's politics have moved firmly to the right, with many voters disillusioned by failed peace attempts with the Palestinians.

The landmark Oslo accords of the 1990s were followed by the bloody second Palestinian intifada, or uprising.

Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas has said he hoped that Israel's elections could help bring peace but senior Palestinian official Hanan Ashrawi said Wednesday that the results showed otherwise.

"They have chosen an overwhelmingly right-wing, xenophobic and anti-Palestinian parliament to represent them," Ashrawi said in a statement.

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