Netanyahu set for record fifth term

Head of the Blue White party Benny Gantz and his top allies Moshe Ya'alon Gabi Ashkenazi and Yair Lapid greet their party supporters following the release of election exit polls at the party headquarters in Tel Aviv

Netanyahu's Likud party tied with Gantz's centrist Blue and White Alliance, gaining 35 seats each, but right-wing parties led the way with 66-55 seats - and almost all of them said they would recommend Netanyahu to President Reuven Rivlin to form the next coalition government.

Gantz, who heads the centrist Blue and White Party, will likely win the support of centre-left and left-wing parties, but polls predict he will fall short of a governing majority in parliament.

Earlier on Wednesday, Netanyahu said he had already started coalition talks with right-wing parties, despite the results of Tuesday's parliamentary elections not being officially revealed yet.

With more than four million votes counted as of 9 a.m., Likud had snagged 26.27% of the vote, or 35 seats in the 120-seat legislature - the party's best result since the 2003 election (when it won 38 seats under Ariel Sharon), and its best under Netanyahu.

The task of forming the next government - a process of horse-trading that can take several weeks - is constitutionally offered by the Israeli president, now Likudnik Reuven Rivlin.

Netanyahu told a crowd of cheering supporters on Monday that "the only way to close the gap and ensure with certainty that Likud will form the next government is to have a big Likud".

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The party appeared to be out of the running based on pre-election surveys, which had widely shown Yisrael Beytenu falling below the 3.25% vote threshold required by Israeli law to enter the Knesset.

Netanyahu sought to portray himself as Israel's essential statesman during the campaign and highlighted his bond with Trump.

The vote had always been expected to be close and lead to frantic negotiations to form a coalition, even with Netanyahu facing potential corruption charges. He said he expected to forge a new coalition with the right-wing parties he called his "natural partners", but that he meant to be "the prime minister of all the citizens of Israel".

Gantz called Netanyahu's pledge "irresponsible".

He declined to comment on Netanyahu's possible re-election to a fifth term but said the German government "will work closely, cordially and faithfully with the new Israeli government".

Just ahead of polling, Netanyahu pitched for right-wing voters who might be tempted to back other nationalist factions, suggesting he could annex Jewish settlements in the West Bank that Palestinians want for the heartland of a future state. On April 9, 2019, Mahmoud Abbas played the supposedly "neutral" game when he said during a tour of a Ramallah hospital, "We are watching what's happening with our neighbor, and we hope they will take the right path toward peace".

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Hanan Ashrawi, a senior Palestinian official, said Israel chose to entrench "the status quo of oppression, occupation, annexation and dispossession". US President Donald Trump is expected to soon roll out his peace plan, but the Palestinians have preemptively rejected the proposal and are boycotting the White House over his recognition of Jerusalem as Israel's capital.

"We are going to turn the Knesset into a battleground", Lapid said.

Such a move would previously have been nearly unthinkable, leaving Israel diplomatically isolated.

After over 13 years in power and despite multiple corruption scandals, which he denies, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu could be set to win a record fifth term.

Gantz said he favored a "globally backed peace agreement" with Israel holding on to the large West Bank settlement blocs, adding he opposed unilateral moves.

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