Benny Gantz formally concedes defeat to Benjamin Netanyahu

Benny Gantz formally concedes defeat to Benjamin Netanyahu

Opposition leader who challenged incumbent PM says he 'respects the voters, and respects their decision'

Benny Gantz, Photo: Ilia Yefimovich/dpa
Benny Gantz, Photo: Ilia Yefimovich/dpa

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s main rival has conceded defeat in Israel’s elections.

Mr Netanyahu’s ruling Likud party and its nationalist allies won a solid majority in the country’s parliamentary elections.

He is poised for an historic fifth term as prime minister with nearly all the ballots counted from Tuesday’s vote.

With 97.4% of the vote counted, Mr Netanyahu’s Likud and the rival Blue and White were deadlocked with a projected 35 seats apiece in the 120-seat parliament.

But Likud and its traditional political allies were in command of a 65-55 majority in the Knesset, Israel’s parliament.

Blue and White, led by former military chief of staff Benny Gantz and Yair Lapid, a former cabinet minister for Mr Netanyahu, got about 26% of the vote – a shade less than Mr Netanyahu’s Likud.

Mr Lapid said Blue and White would “show the people of Israel what a real alternative looks like”.

“We did not win in this round. I respect the voters, and I respect their decision, but I look around and see the ultimate tool for victory in the next round,” Mr Lapid said at a news conference alongside Mr Gantz and two other former military chiefs who led Blue and White.

The outcome further dimmed hopes of a negotiated solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Re-election will also give Mr Netanyahu an important boost as he braces for the likelihood of criminal charges in a series of corruption scandals.

US President Donald Trump called Mr Netanyahu to congratulate him, saying that with the victory, “I think we’ll see some pretty good action in terms of peace”.

“Look, everyone said – and I never made it a promise – but everybody said you can’t have peace in the Middle East with Israel and the Palestinians,” Mr Trump said. “And I think we have, now, a better chance with Bibi having won.”

Mr Lapid vowed that Blue and White would “embitter the lives” of Mr Netanyahu and his allies from the opposition, and push for investigations into other allegations of corruption by the long-reigning premier.

“We are going to turn the Knesset into a battleground,” Mr Lapid said.

Two of Mr Netanyahu’s potential allies, hawkish former defence minister Avigdor Lieberman and finance minister Moshe Kahlon, have yet to formally confirm they would sit with Mr Netanyahu and could emerge as wild cards. The country faces what could be weeks of political negotiations over the composition of a ruling coalition.

But under nearly every scenario, Mr Netanyahu is the big winner.

He had fought a tight race against Mr Gantz, whose new party emerged as a viable alternative to Mr Netanyahu’s decade in power. But most of its support seems to have come at the expense of the Labour and Meretz parties, which both earned historic lows in the election.

Mr Gantz, who had declared victory on election night, said his party would “respect the decision of the people and we will respect the decision of the president”.

The spotlight now falls on President Reuven Rivlin, who will consult with party representatives next week before picking the candidate with the best chance of assembling a parliamentary majority.

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