'King Bibi' stays in power: Israel's Benjamin Netanyahu wins re-election

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 and his main challenger conceding defeat.

Netanyahu wins historic 5th term as opponent Benny Gantz concedes

Longtime Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, is claiming victory in Israel's election. Haaretz reported that his main rival Benny Gantz — who also declared victory Tuesday night — wrote a note to members of his Blue and White Party early Wednesday saying the results were not yet final. (Anwar Ammad/Amir Cohen/Reuters)

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 and his main challenger conceding defeat.

With more than 99 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 prime minister.

In a televised statement, Yair Lapid, number two in the centrist Blue and White party led by former general Benny Gantz, said: "We didn't win in this round. We will make Likud's life hell in the opposition."

U.S. President Donald Trump, who Netanyahu featured on campaign billboards to highlight their close relationship, phoned to congratulate him on his re-election, the Israeli leader said, adding that he thanked his American ally for "tremendous support for Israel."

A man walks past a Likud election campaign billboard depicting U.S. President Donald Trump shaking hands with Netanyahu, in Jerusalem on Feb. 4. (Ammar Awad/Reuters)

Netanyahu — sometimes known as King Bibi, the title of a 2018 documentary about him — 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."

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.

Israel, united?

Bolstered by his base of religious and working-class voters, Netanyahu can be expected to press ahead with a hard-line agenda that will likely eliminate the last hopes of a two-state solution with the Palestinians. A looming indictment in a series of corruption scandals could even accelerate these trends.

While there was talk of unity from political leaders during the campaign, Israelis are divided between Jews and Arabs, religious Jews and secular Jews, Jews of European ancestry and those of Middle Eastern heritage, and between residents of the secular, high-tech metropolis of Tel Aviv and people in dusty, outlying towns, West Bank settlements and the conservative capital of Jerusalem.

Netanyahu, seen here with his wife and supporters at his Likud Party headquarters in Tel Aviv, has already begun coalition negotiations. (Jack Guez/AFP/Getty Images)

Netanyahu, himself a secular, U.S.-educated millionaire with a propensity for cognac and cigars, has nonetheless aligned himself with downtrodden Jewish Israelis with whom he would seem to have little in common. Portraying himself as a victim of the country's "elites," Netanyahu is seen as their hero.

"Netanyahu is the best prime minister the state of Israel has ever had, and we will continue to support him," said Alon Davidi, mayor of the southern town of Sderot.

Just two weeks ago, Davidi's town was dealing with around-the-clock air raid sirens as Palestinian militants in the neighbouring Gaza Strip were bombarding southern Israeli communities with rocket fire.

Corruption questions remain 

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. Earlier that night, Gantz had claimed victory.

Tel Aviv Stock Exchange main indexes were up nearly one per cent 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.

Netanyahu is poised to become, in July, 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.

Netanyahu shakes hands with Trump during their meeting in the Oval Office at the White House in Washington on March 25. (Carlos Barria/Reuters)

Israel's 21 per cent Arab minority saw its parties lose seats. Voters blamed divisions between Arab factions which had united in the previous election, disillusionment, and a voting boycott campaign rooted in dismay at the 2018 "nation-state" law declaring that only Jews have the right of self-determination in Israel.

In Taybeh, an Arab town, Hadash party official Hosam Azem, 52, said: "Arabs who don't vote, most of them don't do it for ideological reasons - just because they don't think their vote will have an impact," he said.

Secret peace plan

During the campaign, Netanyahu sought to tap into Trump's popularity among Israelis, who delighted in his recognition of Jerusalem as Israel's capital in 2017 and transfer of the U.S. 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, recognizing Israeli sovereignty over the occupied Golan Heights captured from Syria in the 1967 Middle East war.

In a rare turn during the race toward 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.

Stubbornly confidential

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."

In a White House where no secret is safe for long, the contents of a Middle East peace plan authored by President Donald Trump's advisers Jared Kushner and Jason Greenblatt have remained stubbornly confidential.

Aides expect Trump to release the plan once Netanyahu forms a government coalition, and officials say that despite criticism of the administration's moves to date, the plan will demand compromises from both sides. .

Netanyahu's probable far-right coalition allies will likely object. Palestinians, angered by what they see as Trump's pro-Israel bias, have called it a non-starter.

The last round of U.S.-brokered peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians collapsed in 2014.

With files from CBC News, Associated Press