Israel's Netanyahu on pace for reelection
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was set early Wednesday to secure a record fifth term in office with the support of right-wing parties, according to near complete unofficial election results.
Netanyahu's Likud and the rival centrist Blue and White, led by former military chief Benny Gantz, were on pace to receive 35 Knesset seats each in the 120-seat parliament.
However, Likud and its allied right-wing and religious parties were set to win 65 seats, beating the leftist bloc. The results mean that Netanyahu appeared to have a mandate to form a coalition.
"I was very moved that the nation of Israel once again entrusted me for the fifth time, and with an even greater trust," Netanyahu told supporters. "I want to make it clear, it will be a right-wing government, but I intend to be the prime minister of all Israeli citizens, right or left, Jews and non-Jews alike," he said.
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The election outcome confirmed Israeli politics' continued shift to the right in a highly divisive election overshadowed by Netanyahu's legal troubles. The next government is likely to be the most right-wing in the country’s history.
Despite issuing a conciliatory message, Netanyahu's campaign was characteristic of his divisive and fearmongering style. He repeatedly rallied right-wing voters by accusing Gantz of conspiring with Arab parties, warned of the dangers posed by "leftists" and assaulted the judiciary and media.
He also touted his close relationship with US President Donald Trump, who has recognized Israeli sovereignty over Jerusalem and the Golan Heights.
On Wednesday, Trump said that he'd called Netanyahu to offer his congratulations, saying that Netanyahu's electoral win improves the chances of success for a US peace plan in the Middle East.
"Everybody said you can't have peace in the Middle East with Israel and Palestinians. I think we have a chance and I think we now have a better chance," he said.
In the final days of the campaign, Netanyahu for the first time pledged to annex parts of the occupied West Bank to energize right-wing voters. Such a move would effectively end the prospect of peace with the Palestinians. Critics say it would challenge the concept that Israel is both Jewish and democratic.
Arab leaders accused Netanyahu of demonizing the country's Arab community, which accounts for about 20% of the population. Turnout for the election among the Arab community was low. The Arab-majority Hadash-Ta'al party secured six seats in the Knesset.
The vote occurred as Netanyahu faces possible corruption and bribery charges that he has described as a "witch hunt." To avoid prosecution, he is expected to demand his coalition partners back him if he is indicted and find a way to grant him immunity.
A narrow right-wing government majority may allay some of the prime minister's legal woes, but it will put him at the head of an unstable coalition with smaller partners seeking to extract political concessions.
At least 11 parties to enter parliament
In other results, Tuesday's vote saw the Labor party, which ruled the country for its first 30 years, crumble to only six seats. The secular, pro-two state solution Meretz party won four seats, as did the Arab Balad party.
The ultra-Orthodox religious political parties Shas and United Torah Judaism won eight seats each, while Yisrael Beiteinu, led by former Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman, won five seats. The Rightest Union secured five seats, Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon's Kulanu party won four seats.
In another surprise, Education Minister Naftali Bennett and Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked's newly formed far-right New Right party were on the cusp of falling below the 3.5% election threshold to enter parliament.
Zehut, a far-right libertarian party that supports the legalization of marijuana, also failed to pass the electoral threshold.
Once final results are announced, President Reuven Rivlin will task the party leader most likely to gain the support of other parties to form a coalition. The prime minister candidate will then have 28 days to do so, with a possible two week extension.
cw/ng (AP, AFP, Reuters)