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Benjamin Netanyahu makes a comeback, Israel PM concedes defeat

Jerusalem: Israel’s caretaker Prime Minster Yair Lapid congratulated on Thursday his rival Benjamin Netanyahu on his “victory”, conceding defeat two days after the country went to the polls.

Lapid’s concession sets the former premier up to form what may be the most right-wing government in Israeli history.

With up to 99 percent of ballots counted, according to the Central Elections Committee, the results put the veteran hawk’s right-wing bloc solidly ahead in the country’s fifth election in four years.

“Prime Minister Lapid congratulated Opposition Leader Netanyahu on his victory in the elections, and updated him that he has instructed his entire office to prepare an organised transition of power,” a statement from Lapid’s office said.

Netanyahu’s Likud party, its ultra-Orthodox Jewish allies and a surging far-right alliance called Religious Zionism were on track for a clear majority in Israel’s 120-seat parliament, spelling the end of an unprecedented period of political deadlock.

Lapid, a bitter Netanyahu rival, had previously told supporters of his centrist Yesh Atid party that the country needed to wait until all votes were counted.

As the remaining ballots were being tallied, the bloc that supports Netanyahu still held 64 seats. The small left-wing Meretz party was hovering below the 3.25 percent threshold needed to secure a minimum four seats, but appeared likely to fall short.

The 73-year-old clinched his comeback after 14 months in opposition. He remains on trial over corruption allegations, which he denies, with the case returning to court on Monday.

Netanyahu has already begun talks with coalition partners on the make-up of a new government, Israeli media reported, but there was no immediate confirmation from his Likud party.

With victory all but confirmed, President Isaac Herzog will next week give Netanyahu 42 days to form a government.

Netanyahu, who has served as premier for longer than anyone in Israel’s 74-history, will then be tasked with sharing out cabinet posts with his coalition partners.

That will likely mean prominent roles for the co-leaders of far-right Religious Zionism, which is projected to win 14 seats, doubling its representation in the last parliament.

Itamar Ben-Gvir, a firebrand known for anti-Arab rhetoric and incendiary calls for Israel to annex the entire West Bank, has said he wants to be public security minister, a post that would put him in charge of the police.

In recent days, Ben-Gvir has called repeatedly for the security services to use more force in countering Palestinian unrest.

“It’s time we go back to being masters of our country,” Ben-Gvir said on election night.

Religious Zionism’s Bezalel Smotrich has said he wants to be defence minister.

The US State Department expressed veiled concern over the prospect of far-right ministers in a future coalition government, while Britain demanded all politicians “refrain from inflammatory language” and respect minorities.

Yossi Klein Halev, a researcher at Jerusalem’s Shalom Hartman Institute, told AFP that “Netanyahu will have a hard time controlling his new partners”.

The vote was held Tuesday against a backdrop of soaring violence across Israeli-annexed east Jerusalem and the occupied West Bank.

At least 34 Palestinians and three Israelis have been killed in the territories since the start of October, according to an AFP tally.

In the latest bloodshed Thursday, an assailant stabbed an Israeli officer in Jerusalem’s Old City before being shot dead, police said.

Three Palestinians, including an alleged Islamist militant commander, were also killed in confrontations with Israeli forces in the West Bank, one near Jerusalem and two during an Israeli raid in the flashpoint city of Jenin, the Palestinian health ministry said.

While many candidates cited security as a concern, none pledged to revive moribund peace talks with the Palestinians.

Palestinian prime minister Mohammad Shtayyeh said the projected results highlighted “growing extremism and racism in Israeli society”.

A key factor seen as boosting Netanyahu was the split among Arab parties, who ran as three separate factions instead of the joint list that saw them win a record number of seats in March 2020.

Separately, not all the factions reached the threshold for representation in parliament, meaning their votes were wasted.

Sami Abou Shahadeh, the head of the Balad party that rejects any cooperation with Israeli governments, defended his party’s decision to run independently, even though it was set to be shut out of parliament.

“We may be losing our representation in the Knesset but we won the love of our people,” he said.