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Netanyahu delivers as speech to the Likud party. PA Images

Netanyahu set to remain Prime Minister as rival concedes defeat

The win would likely see ‘Bibi’ become the longest-serving leader of the country.

LAST UPDATE | 10 Apr 2019

BENNY GANTZ, THE main challenger to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, conceded defeat today in the country’s election as results showed the premier was on track for victory.

“We respect the decision of the people,” Gantz told journalists, acknowledging his centrist Blue and White alliance had failed to unseat Netanyahu in yesterday’s poll.

The victory, despite corruption allegations against the 69-year-old premier, puts him on a path to become Israel’s longest-serving prime minister later this year.

His Likud party looked set to finish with a similar number of seats in parliament to ex-military chief Benny Gantz’s centrist Blue and White alliance.

With 97% of the vote counted, results showed Likud and other right-wing parties allied to him with some 65 seats in the 120-seat parliament, media reports said.

The close race between the two main parties had led to uncertainty after polls closed last night and exit surveys were released.

Both Netanyahu and Gantz claimed victory after the initial exit surveys that gave Blue and White the most seats.

But even then Netanyahu appeared best placed to form a coalition, with both parties in any case falling far short of an outright majority.

Now Gantz has conceded to Netanyahu.

Netanyahu spoke in the early hours of Wednesday at Likud’s post-election party in Tel Aviv and called it a “magnificent victory.”

As he walked onto the stage to chanting crowds, he planted a kiss on the lips of his wife Sara before dramatically wiping lipstick from his face.

ISRAEL-ROSH HAAYIN-ELECTION-VOTE-BENNY GANTZ Ex-army chief Benny Gantz at a polling station. Xinhua News Agency / PA Images Xinhua News Agency / PA Images / PA Images

“It will be a right-wing government, but I will be prime minister for all,” he said.

Earlier while addressing cheering supporters who waived Israeli flags at an event hall in Tel Aviv, Gantz called it an “historic day.”

“The president must give us the task of forming the next government since we are the biggest party,” he said after initial exit polls.

The vote had long been expected to be close and lead to frantic negotiations to form a coalition, even with Netanyahu facing potential corruption charges.

‘Things can change’

“Things can change, but in any case the right-wing bloc won,” Meshi Sivani, 52 and wearing a Likud t-shirt, said at Netanyahu’s post-election party.

Shushan Levi, 61, called Gantz’s performance an “enormous victory for an alliance so new.”

“Once he announced he was entering politics, I followed him,” he said at Blue and White’s party. 

UPI 20190409 Supporters of Benny Gantz cheer as the first exit poll results are announced in Tel Aviv. UPI / PA Images UPI / PA Images / PA Images

“He was my commander in the army 40 years ago.”

Gantz, a newcomer to politics, mounted a strong challenge to the veteran prime minister by brandishing his security credentials while pledging to undo damage he says Netanyahu has inflicted on the country with divisive politics.

The election was in many ways a referendum on the 69-year-old premier who has built a reputation as guarantor of the country’s security and economic growth, but whose populism and alleged corruption have left many ready for change.

He engaged in populist rhetoric that critics said amounted to the demonisation of Arab Israelis and others.

Netanyahu faced further criticism on election day when members of his Likud party brought small cameras into polling stations in Arab areas.

Arab politicians called it an attempt at intimidation, while Netanyahu said cameras would prevent fraud.

True to form, Netanyahu issued a deeply controversial pledge only three days before the election, saying he planned to annex Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank should he win.

Extending Israeli sovereignty on a large-scale in the West Bank could be the death knell to already fading hopes for a two-state solution with the Palestinians.

It is a move long-sought by Israel’s far-right.

© – AFP 2019

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