- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 10, 2019

JERUSALEM — Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has pulled off a squeaker of a win in Israel’s election, declaring victory Wednesday as official vote tallies showed his Likud party will be able to form a majority coalition with smaller right-wing parties to control the nation’s parliament.

“The right-wing bloc led by Likud won clearly,” Mr. Netanyahu told jubilant supporters after a whirlwind night of vote counting led many to believe former military chief Benjamin “Benny” Gantz and his new center-left Blue and White party were on the verge of unseating the longtime prime minister.

But Mr. Gantz formally conceded as it became clear that Mr. Netanyahu and Likud had a clear lane to ally with smaller right-wing parties for a majority of as many as 65 seats in the 120-seat Knesset.

The victory for the hawkish prime minister keeps a key ally of President Trump in power as the U.S. readies its long-awaited Middle East peace plan and tries to rally regional allies against Iran — also a top priority of Mr. Netanyahu. But it does not resolve all of Mr. Netanyahu’s domestic political problems. He still faces a corruption investigation that could complicate his hold on power.

Congratulations quickly began rolling in for Mr. Netanyahu, who is now set to take a fourth consecutive term — and fifth overall — that will make him the longest-serving Israeli prime minister since David Ben-Gurion first held the office for stretches beginning in the late 1940s.

Mr. Trump hailed the win, referring to Mr. Netanyahu by his nickname “Bibi,” and telling reporters at the White House that the victory bodes well for U.S. policies in the region.

“The fact that Bibi has won, I think we’ll see some pretty good actions in terms of peace,” said Mr. Trump. “Everybody said you can’t have peace in the Middle East with Israel and Palestinians. I think we have a chance, and I think we now have a better chance.”

Mr. Netanyahu’s office issued a statement Wednesday thanking Mr. Trump for his “great support for Israel,” including the White House’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights, both gestures seen as intended to give Mr. Netanyahu an electoral boost in the fiercely contested campaign.

Mr. Trump earlier tweeted a photo of “Trump flags being waved at the Bibi…VICTORY celebration last night!”

Exit polls suggested that the leftist parties did well in the cities but Mr. Netanyahu and his allies captured seats in smaller towns and in areas under direct threat from the Palestinians.

Netanyahu is the best prime minister the state of Israel has ever had, and we will continue to support him,” said Alon Davidi, mayor of the southern town of Sderot, which just weeks ago was dealing with around-the-clock air raid sirens as Palestinian militants in the neighboring Gaza Strip were bombarding southern Israeli communities with rocket fire.

Frustration on the left

Mr. Netanyahu’s close win comes amid soaring frustration on the Israeli left that the prime minister has not been toppled by mounting corruption accusations. It also comes against sharp criticism from Palestinians who say he has engineered a shift to the right across Israel in recent years that has undermined Palestinian rights and undercut any hopes of a negotiated two-state political solution.

While the issue of Israeli-Palestinian relations was largely avoided on the campaign trail, it suddenly became a centerpiece down the stretch. Mr. Netanyahu said he would support annexation of controversial Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank — a position long advocated by far-right parties in the Knesset.

It remains to be seen whether the Trump administration would support such an extension of Israeli sovereignty in the West Bank since it is likely to face fierce resistance from Gulf Arab powers and others around the world, including the European Union, and could further stifle already fading hopes for a lasting peace deal.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo refused during a Senate hearing to say whether the administration still backs a two-state solution — something that has been a bedrock goal in decades of Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations.

“We are now working with many parties to share what our vision [is] as to how to solve this problem,” said the secretary of state, adding that the administration hopes to present its plan soon.

White House senior aide and presidential son-in-law Jared Kushner has taken a lead role in drafting the peace accord.

Sen. Tim Kaine, Virginia Democrat, pressed for specifics, asked Mr. Pompeo whether the administration viewed the notion of a separate state for Palestinians as an outdated approach.

“It’s certainly an idea that’s been around a long time, senator,” Mr. Pompeo responded. “Ultimately, the individuals in the region will sort this out.”

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas said Tuesday that he hoped the outcome of Israel’s election would help Israel “come to the negotiating table” with Palestinians. “Our hands remain extended in peace,” Mr. Abbas said from his headquarters in the West Bank city of Ramallah.

Mr. Abbas stressed, however, that Palestinians would reject a peace brokered by the Trump administration.

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu urged Israel to abandon strong “rhetoric and populism” now that the elections are over.

The comment was an apparent reference to Mr. Netanyahu’s expression of support for annexing Jewish settlements in the West Bank.

Analysts said Mr. Netanyahu is unlikely to back down from his position on the issue before his ruling coalition is formed with right-wing parties that support annexation.

While the Blue and White party ultimately won the same number of parliamentary seats as Likud, pundits on all sides agree it’s the coalition factor that counts and Mr. Netanyahu has a number of willing allies to support his bid to stay on for a fourth consecutive term.

“I’ll begin forming a right-wing government with our natural partners,” the prime minister told supporters while thanking Israelis “for their trust.”

Seesaw night

Mr. Gantz had appeared sure of victory as initial exit polls came in late Tuesday night. “We won!” read a statement circulated by Blue and White. But as official counts trickled in during the wee hours, it became clear that the 69-year-old Mr. Netanyahu and Likud would retain power.

“There was a moment last night when Blue and White thought they might be able to pull together a coalition. But as the exit poll picture became more clear, reality set in,” said Jonathan Schanzer, an analyst with the Washington-based Foundation for Defense of Democracies, who has been in Israel this week for the elections.

“The lesser right-wing parties will give Netanyahu another term in office,” Mr. Schanzer said in an interview. “Unless something dramatic transpires, Gantz will be unable to assemble enough seats for a 61-seat majority.”

Some uncertainty remains over exactly what the Likud-led coalition will look like. Some political analysts have said Blue and White — or at least some of Mr. Gantz’s campaign partners — could end up in the government through unexpected political deal-making.

Mr. Schanzer argued that such a scenario is “highly unlikely.”

After conceding, Mr. Gantz accused Mr. Netanyahu of having “collected extremists around himself” to pull off a victory.

Veteran center-left politician Yair Lapid, a running mate with Mr. Gantz in the Blue and White party, told the left-leaning Haaretz newspaper that the party will work hard to make Mr. Netanyahu’s “life bitter from our position in the opposition.”

“We will make the Knesset a battlefield,” Mr. Lapid said.

Some analysts said Mr. Netanyahu’s mounting personal ethical woes could have right-wing parties looking for a new leader once they are safely in power.

“This is a clear beginning of Netanyahu’s fifth term, but his fifth term might end up being his shortest one,” Reuven Hazan, a political scientist from Jerusalem’s Hebrew University, told The Associated Press. “In another year, we might be in a battle for either leadership of the Likud or another election.”

But some in Washington expressed optimism that the heated politics of the election will cool down once the coalition process is officially resolved in the coming days or weeks.

“Congratulations to Prime Minister Benjamin ‘Bibi’ Netanyahu for his strong showing in Israel’s recent election,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham, South Carolina Republican. “He is poised to become the first person in Israeli history to serve five terms as prime minister.

Bibi is a strong leader, and America has no better friend and ally than Prime Minister Netanyahu,” Mr. Graham said.

This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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