Outgoing Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid has congratulated Benjamin Netanyahu on his victory in Tuesday’s general election.
Mr Lapid said he had called his rival to wish him luck and tell him he would ensure an orderly transition of power.
Mr Netanyahu’s Likud party and its far-right and religious allies won 64 of the 120 seats in parliament, according to final results released on Thursday.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s main rival conceded defeat Wednesday, promising to wage a robust battle from the opposition after the ruling Likud party and its nationalist allies won a solid majority in parliamentary elections.
Netanyahu appeared poised for a historic fifth term as prime minister with nearly all the ballots counted from Tuesday’s vote. Official final results were expected Thursday.
With 97.4% of the vote counted, Netanyahu’s Likud and the rival Blue and White were deadlocked with a projected 35 seats apiece in the 120-seat parliament. But Likud and its traditional political allies were in command of a 65-55 majority in the Knesset, Israel’s parliament.
A couple of small parties were still teetering on the electoral threshold and fighting for survival, so the final makeup of the next parliament could still change slightly.
Blue and White, led by former military chief of staff Benny Gantz and Yair Lapid, a former Netanyahu Cabinet minister, got about 26% of the vote — a shade less than Netanyahu’s Likud.
Lapid, the party’s No. 2 leader, said Blue and White would ‘show the people of Israel what a real alternative looks like.’
‘We did not win in this round. I respect the voters, and I respect their decision, but I look around and see the ultimate tool for victory in the next round,’ Lapid said at a news conference alongside Gantz and two other former military chiefs who led Blue and White.
It marks a dramatic comeback for the former prime minister, who was ousted by his opponents 14 months ago.
The result also ends an unprecedented period of political deadlock that began in 2019, when Mr Netanyahu was charged with bribery, fraud and breach of trust, which he denies. He remains on trial, with the next hearing on Monday.
After exit polls projected that he would secure a majority, Mr Netanyahu told Likud supporters that he would set up a government that would “look after all the citizens of Israel, without exception, because the state is all of ours”.
“We’ll restore security, we’ll cut the cost of living, we’ll widen the circle of peace even further, we’ll restore Israel as a rising power among the nations.”
Israeli media said the final results gave Likud 32 seats; Mr Lapid’s centrist Yesh Atid party 24; the far-right ultra-nationalist Religious Zionism alliance 14; and the centre-right National Unity party of Defence Minister Benny Gantz 12.
The ultra-Orthodox parties Shas and United Torah Judaism got 11 and seven seats respectively; the secular nationalist Yisrael Beiteinu party six; the Arab Raam and Hadash-Taal parties five each; and Labour four.
Mr Netanyahu did not mention potential coalition partners in his speech, but they are expected to include Religious Zionism.
Its leaders, Itamar Ben-Gvir and Bezalel Smotrich, are known for their anti-Arab rhetoric. The former has called for the deportation of citizens deemed “disloyal”, while the latter has called for Arab political parties to be outlawed.
Mr Ben-Gvir was a follower of the late, explicitly racist, ultra-nationalist Meir Kahane, whose organisation was banned in Israel and designated as a terrorist group by the United States. He has been convicted of incitement to racism and supporting a terrorist organisation.
The inclusion of Religious Zionism in the new government would alarm many left-wing and centrist Israelis, as well as Israeli Arabs, who make up a fifth of the population. It could also strain ties with the Palestinians and Israel’s Western and Arab allies.
The US said on Wednesday it hoped “all Israeli government officials will continue to share the values of an open, democratic society, including tolerance and respect for all in civil society, particularly for minority groups”.
Mr Smotrich has said he wants to be defence minister, while Mr Ben-Gvir has demanded to be public security minister.
The outcome affirmed Israel’s continued tilt to the right and further dimmed hopes of a negotiated solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Re-election will also give Netanyahu an important boost as he braces for the likelihood of criminal charges in a series of corruption scandals.
Lapid vowed that Blue and White would ’embitter the lives’ of Netanyahu and his allies from the opposition, and push for investigations into other allegations of corruption by the long-reigning premier.
‘We are going to turn the Knesset into a battleground,’ Lapid said.
Two of Netanyahu’s potential allies, hawkish former Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman and economic-centric Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon, have yet to formally confirm they would sit with Netanyahu and could emerge as wild cards. In any case, the country faces what could be weeks of political negotiations over the composition of a ruling coalition.
But under nearly every scenario, Netanyahu was the big winner.
He had fought a tight, ugly race against Gantz, whose new party emerged as a viable alternative to Netanyahu’s decade in power. But most of its support seems to have come at the expense of the venerable Labor and leftist Meretz parties, which both earned historic lows in the election.
Gantz, who had declared victory on election night, said Wednesday his party would ‘respect the decision of the people and we will respect the decision of the president.’
The spotlight now falls on President Reuven Rivlin, who will consult with party representatives next week before picking the candidate with the best chance of assembling a parliamentary majority.
Together with his current Jewish ultra-Orthodox and nationalist partners, Netanyahu seemed to have a clear path toward building a coalition government that has a majority in parliament.
Rivlin said that for the first time, his discussions with party leaders would be broadcast on live television ‘in the name of transparency.’
With a victory, Netanyahu would capture a fourth consecutive term and fifth overall, which this summer will make him Israel’s longest-ever serving leader, surpassing founding father David Ben-Gurion.
‘It’s a night of tremendous victory,’ Netanyahu told supporters early Wednesday, adding that he had already begun talking to fellow right-wing and religious parties about forming a coalition.
Netanyahu’s message of unity contrasted with his campaign theme in which he accused Gantz of conspiring with Arab parties to topple him. Arab leaders accused Netanyahu of demonizing the country’s Arab community, which is about 20% of the population.
His attacks on the Arab sector fueled calls for a boycott and appeared to result in relatively low turnout by Arab voters.
Though the Palestinian issue was rarely mentioned in the raucous campaign, Netanyahu in the final stretch pledged for the first time to annex parts of the occupied West Bank in a desperate bid to rally his right-wing base. Netanyahu has reneged on election eve promises before, but should he follow through on this one, it would mark a dramatic development and potentially wipe out the already diminishing hope for Palestinian statehood.
Ahmed Majdalani, an aide to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, said the Palestinians will seek the help of the international community to try to block any such plans. He said that the outcome of the election means a boost for what he called the ‘extreme right-wing camp’ in Israeli politics.
Hanan Ashrawi, a senior Palestinian official, said Israel chose to entrench ‘the status quo of oppression, occupation, annexation and dispossession.’
The 69-year-old Netanyahu has been the dominant force in Israeli politics for the past two decades. His campaign has focused heavily on his friendship with President Donald Trump and his success in cultivating new allies, such as China, India and Brazil.
But his corruption scandals created some voter fatigue. Gantz was able to challenge Netanyahu on security issues, normally the prime minister’s strong suit, while also taking aim at his alleged ethical lapses.
Israel’s attorney general has recommended charging Netanyahu with bribery, breach of trust and fraud in three cases, and a potential fourth case emerged during the campaign. He will only decide on indicting Netanyahu after a legally mandated hearing. Legal experts expect at least some charges to be filed, which could result in a short term in office for Netanyahu and another round of elections.
‘This is a clear beginning of Netanyahu’s fifth term, but his fifth term might end up being his shortest one’, says Reuven Hazan, a political scientist from Jerusalem’s Hebrew University. ‘In another year, we might be in a battle for either leadership of the Likud or another election.’