Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has won the national election, securing a record fifth term in office despite running neck-and-neck with his challenger Benny Gantz.
With 97 percent of the votes counted, the country’s three main television channels gave Netanyahu victory on Wednesday, although neither of the candidates’ parties had captured a ruling majority.
Netanyahu was believed clearly in a strong position to form a coalition government with other right-wing factions that have backed him.
The closely contested race 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.
The veteran right-wing leader’s Likud party and Gantz’s new centrist Blue and White party both won 35 seats, according to the Knesset website and the Israeli TV channels. That would mean a five-seat gain for Likud.
“It is a night of colossal victory,” the 69-year-old Netanyahu told cheering supporters in a late-night speech at Likud headquarters, while cautioning that a “long night and possibly day” lay ahead awaiting official results.
Fireworks flared behind him as his wife Sara applauded and kissed him. “He’s a magician,” the crowd chanted.
Final results were expected by Friday, though the provisional results showed 65 of the Knesset’s 120 seats would go to the right-wing bloc of parties led by Netanyahu, against a total of 55 seats for centre-left factions.
Netanyahu, 69, is on track to be the longest-serving prime minister in Israel’s 71-year history. Netanyahu said he had already begun talks with prospective coalition allies.
He had a first term in the 1990s and then returned to power in 2009.
Rival Gantz, a popular 59-year-old former general, had also claimed victory earlier, citing preliminary exit polls published soon after voting ended on Tuesday that showed his party had won more seats than Likud.
“We are the victors,” said Gantz, a former military chief fighting his first election. “We want to thank Benjamin Netanyahu for his service to the nation.”
Despite both men claiming victory on Tuesday night, a clearer picture emerged by Wednesday morning as the results began streaming in, painting Netanyahu as the winner.
During the campaign, the rival parties accused each other of corruption, fostering bigotry and being soft on security.
Netanyahu highlighted his close relationship with U.S. President Donald Trump, who delighted Israelis and angered Palestinians by recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital in 2017 and moving the American Embassy to the holy city last May.NAN