Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu secured a clear path to reelection 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 percent of votes counted, 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 – a record fifth term as premier.
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 won 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 after Tuesday’s vote.
“He’s a magician,” the crowd chanted as fireworks flared and Netanyahu kissed his wife Sara.
His challenger, the new Blue and White party of ex-general 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 future 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 become the longest-serving Israeli prime minister in July, 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 political analysts predict he may try to pass a law granting himself immunity, as a sitting leader, from trial.
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”.
Once the vote tally is final, 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.