Israelis head to polls as Prime Minister Netanyahu seeks fifth term

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The Blue and White party, headed by former army chief of staff Benny Gantz, drew even with Netanyahu's Likud party, but the incumbent prime minister is poised to form a government with his larger bloc of allies.

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.

Media outlets in the country were reporting on Wednesday morning that long-time leader Mr Netanyahu was victorious. The telegenic Gantz, who has been vague on key policy issues, has presented himself as a clean, scandal-free alternative to Netanyahu. Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked, two prominent figures on the right, may not serve in the next Knesset, as their New Right party finished with less than 3.25 per cent of the vote - the threshold for entering the parliament.

He said he had already begun talking to fellow right-wing and religious parties about forming a new coalition.

The message that the Israeli public has sent is very clear.

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Although the count of what is collectively known in Israeli elections as "double envelopes" - which are counted last - is expected to continue until late Thursday, the possibility of those ballots making a significant difference is questionable.

Tehilla Shwartz Altshuler of the Israel Democracy Institute deemed the strategy saw "a one-to-one imitation" of Trump's 2016 presidential campaign: "This was about both spreading fear and sowing a victim-like mistrust in the democratic institutions".

Speaking after preliminary results were announced early Wednesday, Netanyahu hailed a "magnificent victory".

Then, two days before the election, in a seeming bid to steal votes from other right-wing parties, Netanyahu controversially pledged to annex settlements in the occupied West Bank. "The fact is that it will be very hard for the Kachol Lavan party (the Blue and White, named after the colors of the Israeli flag), the only clear slogan of which was "We are ready for anything, but not with Netanyahu", to abandon its beliefs and make an alliance with Netanyahu".

He said his party will "embitter" Netanyahu's life from the opposition.

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And leaders from the right side of the political spectrum have paid tribute to the man who could later this year overtake David Ben-Gurion as Israel's longest-serving prime minister.

"It is a night of colossal victory", Mr Netanyahu, 69, told cheering supporters in a late-night speech at Likud headquarters.

His attacks on the Arab sector fueled calls for a boycott and appeared to result in relatively low turnout by Arab voters.

President Trump has forged no deeper political bond than the one he has with Benjamin Netanyahu and right now, it's unclear if Trump's push to get him reelected has paid off. "They asked for a different path, and we showed them the way". Voters blamed divisions between Arab factions which had united in the previous election, disillusionment, and a voting boycott campaign rooted in dismay at the 2018 "nation-state" law declaring that only Jews have the right of self-determination in Israel. The attorney general has recommended a series of criminal charges against the prime minister but will only make a decision on indicting him after a legally mandated hearing.

Hanan Ashrawi, a senior Palestinian official, said Israel chose to entrench "the status quo of oppression, occupation, annexation and dispossession". Legal experts expect at least some charges to be filed. We'll see - but there's no doubt that Netanyahu owes Trump big-time.

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