Netanyahu declares victory in Israeli election

By Jeffrey Heller

* Israeli PM one seat away from parliamentary majority -polls

* Netanyahu denies any wrongdoing in corruption cases

* Election was Israel's third in less than a year

By Jeffrey Heller

JERUSALEM, March 3 (Reuters) - Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declared victory on Tuesday in Israel's third election in less than a year, after television exit polls showed him just a seat short of a governing majority in parliament.

A win for Netanyahu, 70, after inconclusive ballots in April and September, would be 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 the right-wing 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 U.S. 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.

Israel's three main TV channels projected in exit polls that Netanyahu's rightist Likud and like-minded parties would capture 60 of parliament's 120-seats, just one short of a majority, in Monday's vote. In an updated exit poll, Israel's Channel 13 dropped the figure to 59.

During an acrimonious campaign which focused more on character than on policy, right-wing and religious parties had pledged to join a Likud-led coalition government. But if the 60-seat projection held true, after actual results later on Tuesday, Netanyahu would still have to enlist other allies in coalition negotiations.

A Likud spokesman said the prime minister would deliver a late-night victory speech at the party's election headquarters in Tel Aviv.

Ahead of the address, Netanyahu wrote on Twitter: "We won thanks to our belief in our path and thanks to the people of Israel."

Netanyahu's main challenger, former armed forces chief Benny Gantz of the centrist Blue and White party, stopped short of conceding defeat in his own posting on Twitter, telling supporters he would "continue to fight for the right path, for you."

The exit polls showed Likud taking between 36 and 37 parliamentary seats to 32 or 33 for Blue and White - a gap that would make it far harder for Gantz to find a path to putting together a governing coalition.

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.

Anshel Pfeffer, who wrote a biography of Netanyahu, said on the website of the left-wing Haaretz newspaper that a win for the veteran politician would be a "stunning comeback" for a man "who doesn't lie down after a setback".


SECURITY FIRST

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.

"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'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 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.

(Additional reporting by Stephen Farrell, Dan Williams and Maayan Lubell)