(Update: President Trump congratulated Binyamin Netanyahu on a “great and hard-fought win” after his rival conceded defeat on Wednesday evening. “The United States is with him and the People of Israel all the way!” Trump tweeted. The close contest saw Benny Gantz’ Blue and White list and Netanyahu’s Likud secure 35 seats each in the 120-seat Knesset, but once likely coalition partners are taken into account Likud potentially could muster 65 seats to Blue and White’s 55.)
(CNSNews.com) – Israelis face an anxious wait Wednesday to see whether or not voters have given Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu a historic fifth election victory, with partial results indicating that either he or his rival, former IDF Chief of Staff Benny Gantz, could be called on to form the next government.
Both Netanyahu and Gantz are claiming victory.
Israel’s president, whose role is mostly ceremonial, will have the responsibility of asking one of them to cobble together a viable coalition, through negotiations with the stronger performers out of the dozens of smaller parties in the contest.
With around 94 percent of votes counted, Netanyahu’s right wing Likud was tied with Gantz’ recently-formed Blue and White list, both at 29.2 percent, equating to 35 seats each in the 120-seat Knesset. In third place was the ultra-Orthodox Shas party, with eight seats.
Netanyahu appeared confident as he greeted Likud supporters at party headquarters in Tel Aviv in the early hours, hailing a “tremendous victory” and saying he was “very excited that the people of Israel once again trusted me for the fifth time.”
Gantz, meanwhile, declared his list to be the winner, and voiced confidence that he would be the one to lead negotiations to form the next government.
If victorious, Netanyahu will in July pass David Ben Gurion to become Israel’s longest-serving prime minister. He first served as prime minister from 1996-1999, before returning to the helm in 2009.
The Israel-U.S. relationship has been strong under Democratic and Republican administrations, but the close alliance between Netanyahu and President Trump has been evident to supporters and detractors alike. The liberal U.S. Jewish organization J Street refers in its statements to the “far-right Trump-Netanyahu partnership.”
Netanyahu has characterized Trump as the most pro-Israel U.S. president ever, pointing in particular to his recognition of Israeli sovereignty over Jerusalem and the Golan Heights, and to his hard line against the regime in Iran, Israel’s foremost foe.
The Israeli prime minister has also implied – in campaign speeches and videos – that it is his relationship with Trump that has helped to reap those rewards for Israel. Critics of both leaders have complained that Trump has been making policy to benefit Netanyahu’s re-election campaign.
“Trump is obviously seeking to hand Netanyahu an electoral boost and to pander to his own right-wing base,” J Street president Jeremy Ben-Ami said on the day Trump signed a proclamation last month recognizing that “the Golan Heights are part of the State of Israel.”
Although the Middle East is awaiting the unveiling of Trump’s proposal for an Israeli-Palestinian deal, the prospect of a peace agreement was not a prominent issue during much of the election campaign – although in the closing days Netanyahu caused a stir by pledging to annex parts of the disputed West Bank where Jewish communities are located.
The Likud opposes an independent Palestinian state, and the Blue and White list’s election platform did not even mention the so-called “two-state solution” to the conflict.
One issue that did feature strongly was corruption allegations against Netanyahu. The Likud campaign suffered a setback in late February when Israel’s attorney-general called for him to be indicted on fraud, bribery, and breach of trust charges.
The timing of the announcement, just weeks before the election, surprised many, given that a final decision on whether to move ahead with charges depends on the outcome of a pre-trial hearing which will only take place after election day.
It was the first time in Israel’s history that criminal charges were announced against a sitting prime minister, and Netanyahu charged that his opponents were conducting an “unprecedented witch hunt” designed to sway voters.
Netanyahu is accused of receiving illicit gifts from donors; of seeking positive coverage from the publisher of an Israeli newspaper in exchange for help against a rival publication; and of enacting regulations benefiting a telecommunications company in return for favorable coverage on a news website owned by the company. He denies all charges.
Around 6.4 million adult Israeli citizens, Jews, Arabs and Druze, were eligible to vote. Forty-three parties or lists contested the election, although only 11 appear to be on track to pass the 3.25 percent threshold to enter the Knesset.
Tuesday’s vote was for the 21st Knesset since the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948.
By contrast, the Palestinian Legislative Council has been suspended for the past 12 years, amid a continuing rift between Mahmoud Abbas’ Fatah faction and Hamas. Abbas’ four-year mandate as “president of the State of Palestine” expired ten years and three months ago although the United Nations and world leaders continue to accord him the title.