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Netanyahu claims victory in Israeli election but lacks governing majority

Voting ends in Israel with exit polls giving Netanyahu a slight lead.
Voting ends in Israel with exit polls giving Netanyahu a slight lead. © Jack Guez, AFP

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu emerged victorious Tuesday after Israel's third election in a year despite a looming corruption trial, dismaying the Palestinians who were angered by his hardline campaign pledges.

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On the basis of initial projections by Israel's three main television channels, Netanyahu, head of the right-wing Likud party, claimed victory in Monday's vote over his main challenger, former armed forces chief Benny Gantz of the centrist Blue and White.

The central election committee said it had counted 90 percent of the vote, with breakdowns of the result in the media showing Netanyahu's Likud party with 36 seats in Israel's 120-member parliament.

That would mark the party's best-ever result under Netanyahu, Israel's longest-serving prime minister and its first to be indicted in office.

Netanyahu's bloc, which includes ultra-Orthodox Jewish parties, is likely still one or two votes short of a majority, but his party spokesman said it was confident of luring defectors. Likud's main challenger, the centrist Blue and White party, was projected to win 32 seats.

Netanyahu's victory, after inconclusive ballots in April and September, is testimony to the political durability of Israel's longest-serving leader, who fought the latest campaign under the shadow of a looming corruption trial.

It would also pave the way for Netanyahu to make good on his pledge to annex, after the election, Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank, and the region's Jordan Valley, under a peace plan presented by US President Donald Trump.

Palestinians have rejected the proposal, saying it was killing their dream of establishing a viable state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, territory Israel captured in the 1967 Middle East war.

During an acrimonious campaign which focused more on character than on policy, right-wing and religious parties had pledged to join a Likud-led government.

Netanyahu campaigned vigorously on his strongman "security-first" platform, familiar to Israeli voters over decades, and his loyal base of blue-collar voters has stood firmly behind him throughout, seemingly unfazed by his imminent trial.

"What a joyous night," a beaming Netanyahu told a cheering crowd in a speech at Likud's election headquarters in Tel Aviv. "This victory is especially sweet, because it is a victory against all odds ... We turned lemons into lemonade."

Gantz, in an address at his party's election headquarters, stopped short of conceding defeat, saying the election could result in another deadlock.

"I will tell you honestly, I understand and share the feeling of disappointment and pain because it is not the result we wanted," he said.

Criminal charges

Netanyahu's re-election bid has been complicated since the last election by his indictment on charges of bribery, breach of trust and fraud over allegations he granted state favours worth millions of dollars to Israeli media barons in return for favourable press coverage, and that he wrongfully received gifts.

The first trial of a sitting prime minister in Israel is due to begin on March 17. Netanyahu denies any wrongdoing.

During the campaign, Gantz termed Netanyahu "the defendant", accusing him of seeking to retain power to promote legislation that would bar authorities from putting a serving prime minister on trial.

Netanyahu has portrayed Gantz, 60, as a "coward", saying he would need Arab politicians' support in parliament to form a government and that they would tie his hands.

In the previous election, in September, Blue and White edged past Likud, taking 33 seats to its rival's 32, but Gantz, like Netanyahu, was unable to put together a ruling coalition.

"While we need to wait for the final results, there is no doubt that Prime Minister Netanyahu has won a significant political mandate from the Israeli people," said Yohanan Plesner, president of the Israel Democracy Institute. "Israelis voiced their support for the man they perceive to have brought them security and prosperity," he said.

Netanyahu, responded to the projections earlier on Monday evening by tweeting that the results were "a huge victory for Israel", also saying “Thank you” with a heart emoji.

In the final days of the campaign, opinion polls had forecast further deadlock, but turnout was high, at 71 percent, despite concerns about the spread of the new coronavirus.

Voters under home-quarantine, such as those who have recently travelled back to Israel from coronavirus hot spots, voted at special polling stations wearing face masks and gloves.

(FRANCE 24 with REUTERS and AFP)

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