Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu appeared headed toward re-election Wednesday morning, as close-to-complete unofficial results showed him pulling ahead of his main competitor in a tight race seen as a referendum on the long-serving leader.
With a victory, Netanyahu would capture a fourth consecutive term and fifth overall, which this summer will make him Israel’s longest-ever serving leader.
Both Netanyahu and his challenger, former IDF Chief of Staff Benny Gantz, leader of the Blue and White party, had declared victory in speeches to boisterous gatherings of supporters. But as the night went on, there were growing signs that Netanyahu’s Likud was pulling ahead.
“It’s a night of tremendous victory,” Netanyahu told supporters. “I was very moved that the nation of Israel once again entrusted me for the fifth time, and with an even greater trust.”
He said he had already begun talking to fellow right-wing and religious parties about forming a new coalition.
“I want to make it clear, it will be a right-wing government, but I intend to be the prime minister of all Israeli citizens, right or left, Jews and non-Jews alike,” he said.
Although the Likud was seen tied with Blue and White at 35 seats each, the right-wing bloc had a clear lead and Netanyahu a clear path to forming a coalition.
Coming in at a surprising third and fourth places were the chareidi parties Shas and United Torah Judaism, with eight seats each.
Fifth was the Arab Hadash-Ta’al party with six seats. The Labor Party crashed to sixth place with six seats as well, the party’s worst showing ever.
Avigdor Liberman’s Yisrael Beytenu and the Union of Right-Wing Parties had five seats each, while Meretz, Kulanu and Arab party Ra’am-Balad had four seats each.
In a shocking development, the New Right party, led by Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked, appeared to have failed to cross the electoral threshold of 3.25 percent, garnering just 3.14 percent of the vote.
Another surprise was Moshe Feiglin’s Zehut party, which had surged in recent surveys, polling as high as six to eight seats. In the end, the party only drew the support of 2.53 percent of voters. Also failing to pass the electoral threshold was Orly Levy-Abekasis’s Gesher, with 1.75 percent.
The results were not final, with tens of thousands of soldiers’ votes yet to be counted.