Benjamin Netanyahu on course to remain prime minister after tight Israeli election

Benjamin Netanyahu looked on the brink of securing a fifth-term as Israel’s prime minister on Wednesday, after fending off a centrist challenge despite facing criminal corruption charges.

With nearly all votes counted, Mr Netanyahu’s Likud had won the same number of seats as Blue & White, a centrist coalition run by led by former general Benny Gantz, but the prime minister had a much clearer path to forming a coalition.

“This is a night of tremendous victory,” Mr Netanyahu told his cheering supporters in Tel Aviv. “I am very moved that the people of Israel again put its faith in me, for the fifth time”.

If the final tallies are confirmed, it will cement Mr Netanyahu’s reputation as the most successful election-winner in Israeli history and prove that his brand of divisive Right-wing politics is the country’s dominant political force.

Mr Netanyahu, 69, has been in power for 13 years and is now on course to overtake David Ben Gurion, Israel’s founding father, as the country’s longest-serving prime minister.

He is positioned to form a new Right-wing government and promised during the campaign that he would annex Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank, a step he has previously shied away from.

Mr Netanyahu (centre) and Mr Gantz (left) once worked closely together - Credit: Photo by Jim Hollander - Pool/Getty Images
Mr Netanyahu (centre) and Mr Gantz (left) once worked closely together Credit: Photo by Jim Hollander - Pool/Getty Images

His re-election would also clear the way for the White House to release its long-awaited Israeli-Palestinian peace plan, known as “the Deal of the Century”.

A spokesman for the Palestinian Authority said regardless of the final result it appeared that Israelis had “voted no to peace and yes to the occupation”.

Mr Netanyahu could also potentially try to reach out to Mr Gantz and try to form a broad Centre-Right national unity government.

Mr Netanyahu’s Likud and Mr Gantz’s Blue & White each appeared to have won 35 seats in Israel’s 120-member parliament. However, Likud and other Right-wing parties held a majority of seats, giving Mr Netanyahu a clear route to forming a coalition government.

Mr Gantz would have a far more difficult path to cobbling together a coalition as he would only be able to rely on the guaranteed support of two small Left-wing parties.  

At Blue & White’s campaign rally early on Tuesday night, Mr Gantz claimed victory but that was before vote counting showed the Likud catching up on the centrists.

Mr Gantz did not concede on Wednesday. In a message to supporters he admitted that "the odds may not seem in our favour" but urged them not to lose hope.

The next stage of the election process is for Reuven Rivlin, Israel’s president, to summon all the party leaders for consultations in the coming days before deciding who to task with forming the government.

If enough Right-wing parties pledge their support for Mr Netanyahu it is likely he will be returned to the prime minister’s residence on Balfour Street in Jerusalem.

By Wednesday morning, the prime minister appeared close to securing the support he needed for a new term.

Despite his election victory, Mr Netanyahu’s hold on power is still threatened by the criminal charges against him, which will be finalised after a hearing this summer.

Israeli prosecutors allege that Mr Netanyahu changed telecomms regulations in return for more favourable media coverage and accepted bribes worth 1 million shekels (£200,000) in the form of lavish gifts from businessmen.

Mr Netanyahu, known in Israel as “Bibi”, denies all wrongdoing and claims the prosecutions are part of a politically-motivated witch hunt against him and his family.

“I know some of the things Bibi did are wrong but I’m not looking for a rabbi. I’m looking for a leader,” said Yaakov Lemash, a 76-year-old retired business owner, after casting his vote for Mr Netanyahu. “I want to tell Bibi thank you for all that he did for us.”

Mr Netanyahu’s main campaign message was that he was an indispensable prime minister, whose personal relationships with world leaders like Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin had lifted Israel to a stature far beyond its small its small size.

He pointed to the US embassy moving to Jerusalem, the success of the country’s booming high-tech sector, and Israel’s ability to strike Iranian forces in Syria without getting dragged into full-scale war as proof of his effective leadership.

He also tacked hard to the Right, promising to annex Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank and antagonising Arab voters by saying Israel is “not a state of all its citizens” but only a nation state of the Jewish people.

His allies meanwhile launched blistering attacks on Mr Gantz, portraying him as a paranoid delusional and suggesting that Iranian intelligence agencies may have gathered compromising material on the ex-general by hacking his phone.

In the final days and hours of the election, Mr Netanyahu issued feverish warnings that he was in danger of losing and called on all Right-wing voters to rally around his Likud party. “There are only a few more hours. Go out and vote for the Likud or else we will get a Leftist government,” he said Tuesday.

The tactic was a repeat of his 2015 election victory, when he scared voters planning to support small Right-wing parties into switching to Likud at the last moment. At least one small Right-wing party, the New Right, looked like it would fail reach the threshold for winning seats after bleeding support to Likud.

The White House remained officially neutral in the Israeli election but many observers concluded that Donald Trump was trying to tip the scales in Mr Netanyahu’s favour.

Two weeks before the election, Mr Trump announced he was recognising Israel’s annexation of the Golan Heights and lavished praise on Mr Netanyahu in a ceremony at the White House.

The two ultra-Orthodox Jewish parties, both of whom support Mr Netanyahu, appeared to have grown their support and together will control 16 seats in the 120-member parliament.

Polls showed that turnout among Arab citizens of Israel, who make up 20 per cent of the Israeli population, had fallen sharply since the 2015 election. The number of Arab MPs looked likely to fall from 13 to 10.

Many Arab voters grew despondent and frustrated after the Joint List, a coalition of all the Arab parties, broke apart in acrimony at the beginning of the election.

“All of the Arab parties are hopeless and nobody deserves my vote,” said Hamzeh Sahleh, a 47-year-old resident of Tamra, an Arab city in northern Israel.