Israel's Benjamin Netanyahu headed for record 5th term as Benny Gantz concedes

Israel's conservative Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu appeared headed for a record fifth term Wednesday after his main challenger Benny Gantz, a centrist former military chief, conceded the hard-fought election.

With nearly all the votes counted Wednesday, Netanyahu's right-wing Likud Party was on course to win a similar amount of seats to Gantz's Blue and White alliance. But because Likud and its allies in Israel's Knesset – or national legislature – were set to command an overall majority in parliament, Netanyahu secured the first chance to form a new coalition government.

Gantz said while his party did not win, he and his allies would remain a political force.

“We will stand together,” Gantz said. “This is my first day of the next decade in which I will serve the people every way I can.”

The Blue and White party's No. 2 official, Yair Lapid, was more blunt.

"We will make Likud’s life hell in the opposition," Lapid said Wednesday evening.

Israel elections usually end in coalition governments. Netanyahu was expected to try to form a pact in the 120-seat Knesset with nationalist and ultra-Orthodox Jewish parties, local media reported, although the process could take weeks of political negotiations before the composition of a new ruling coalition is known.

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"It’s a night of tremendous victory," Netanyahu told supporters early Wednesday. "I was very moved that the nation of Israel once again entrusted me for the fifth time, and with an even greater trust."

He said that talks about forming a new coalition had begun.

"I want to make it clear, it will be a right-wing government, but I intend to be the prime minister of all Israeli citizens, right or left, Jews and non-Jews alike," he said.

If Netanyahu's re-election is confirmed, later this year he will become Israel's longest-serving leader, surpassing the nation's founding father David Ben-Gurion. It will come as the 69-year-old braces for likely criminal charges in a series of corruption scandals.

Israel's attorney general previously said he intends to indict Netanyahu for bribery, fraud and breach of trust in connection with influence-peddling and questionable use of public funds allegations that have dogged him and his wife Sarah for years.

Netanyahu's apparent victory also affirmed Israel’s continued tilt to the political right and cast fresh doubt on hopes of a negotiated solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, partly because of Netanyahu's close relationship with President Donald Trump.

“What used to be known as the Israeli left has been obliterated by the shifts in Israeli politics,” said Brian Katulis, a Middle East expert and senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, a liberal Washington think tank.

He said Trump and Netanyahu are likely to work in tandem to push a hardline against both Iran and the Palestinians. “Ideas like Israel annexing parts of the West Bank are moving closer to reality, and this could have a destabilizing effect in a region of the world that is already a tinderbox,” Katulis said.

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Trump enjoys high approval ratings in Israel, and Netanyahu made his ties with the American president a centerpiece of his election campaign. Netanyahu even erected giant billboards showing him shaking hands with Trump and declaring "Netanyahu, in a different league." But Trump's decision to reverse decades of U.S. policy toward Israel, including moving the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem even though both the Palestinians and the Israelis claim that city as their capital, has embittered Palestinians.

When Netanyahu visited the White House last month, Trump signed a proclamation recognizing the Golan Heights as Israeli territory. Israel captured the area in the 1967 Middle East war and annexed it in 1981. The move was not recognized internationally. In his campaign, Netanyahu pledged to annex Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank, which further dashes Palestinian hopes for statehood.

Trump administration officials have repeatedly refused to take a position on Netanyahu's provocative campaign promise to annex the West Bank or even to say if the U.S. still supports a two-state solution to the Israel-Palestinian conflict – a longstanding pillar of U.S. policy.

Trump's son-in-law and senior White House aide Jared Kushner has been touring the Middle East for months to promote a new secretive Israeli-Palestinian peace plan. It's expected to be unveiled soon but critics have dismissed it even before its release because of Trump's pro-Israel actions. Foreign Policy magazine described it as a "disaster waiting to happen" and Shalom Lipner, who served seven consecutive Israeli prime ministers, wrote in a recent Politico analysis that it looked "dead on arrival."

Lipner said that Kushner's peace plan, which Palestinian officials have already rejected unseen, "invites comparison to Don Quixote dreaming the impossible dream in 'The Man of La Mancha,'" referring to the hapless knight character in the Spanish writer Miguel de Cervantes' 17th-century epic comic novel.

"If a plan is made, it should be totally rejected. No one should discuss it or negotiate about it because the United States is unqualified to play the role of arbitrator," Ghassan Khatib, a senior member of the Palestinian People’s Party, told Al-Monitor, a Washington, D.C.-based hub for reporting and analysis about the Middle East.

Still, Trump told reporters Wednesday that Netanyahu’s re-election improved chances for Middle East peace. "I think we have a better chance now," he said.

Gantz, 59, is a popular former armed forces chief in Israel's military and while he is considered to be politically inexperienced and ran what Israeli media described as a "haphazard campaign" his strong showing in the election "answered a desire among a sizable proportion of the Israeli public for something different, for a change from Netanyahu," Israel's Haaretz newspaper concluded Wednesday.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Israel's Benjamin Netanyahu headed for record 5th term as Benny Gantz concedes