Netanyahu poised to claim victory in Israeli election
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Both Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his main challenger Benny Gantz claimed to have won Israel's election on Tuesday, though partial results suggested Netanyahu was most likely to be able to form a ruling coalition.
With 97 percent of votes counted, Netanyahu's Likud party was tied with Gantz's centrist Blue and White Party with 35 parliamentary seats each, the Knesset website and Israeli media said.
But Netanyahu looked in a strong position to form a coalition government with right-wing factions, and the country's three main television channels called the election in Likud's favour.
They projected Likud and its allies would be able to claim 65 seats in the 120-member Knesset, paving the way for Netanyahu to secure a fifth term and make him Israel's longest-serving prime minister later this year.
"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.
Gantz claims victory
Gantz had also claimed victory after exit polls had delivered a split verdict on the outcome of the vote earlier in the night, with some predicting his Blue and White party would win the most seats.
"We won! The Israeli public has had their say!" the Blue and White alliance (Kahol Lavan) said as the results continued to roll in. "These elections have a clear winner and a clear loser."
Gantz later told a rally in Tel Aviv that exit polls showed the party had won the most seats and it should therefore be given the chance to form the next government.
"We are the victors," Gantz said. "We want to thank Benjamin Netanyahu for his service to the nation."
But a clearer picture emerged by Wednesday morning as the results began streaming in, painting Netanyahu as the more likely winner.
No one party has ever won a ruling majority in the Knesset, and building a parliamentary coalition – which could take weeks – will ultimately determine the victor. Netanyahu said he had already begun talks with prospective coalition allies.
Netanyahu served a first term as prime minister from 1996 to 1999 and has been in power since 2009. His victory would secure him a record fifth term and put him on track to become Israel’s longest-serving prime minister.
But Netanyahu is also facing possible indictment in three corruption cases. Israel's attorney general in February confirmed his intention to indict the prime minister on charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust.
In a last-minute appeal to hardliners, Netanyahu on Saturday vowed to annex Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank if he wins.
Gantz, 59, has indicated he would be willing to make territorial concessions but has evaded questions on Palestinian statehood. His Blue and White centrist alliance has touted his security credentials and campaigned on more transparency in government.
(FRANCE 24 with REUTERS, AFP)