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Israel Election: Netanyahu Appears Headed For Win In Close Race

Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu waves to his supporters in Tel Aviv after polls for Israel's general elections closed.
Ariel Schalit
Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu waves to his supporters in Tel Aviv after polls for Israel's general elections closed.

Updated at 2:50 p.m. ET

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu appears to be on his way to a fourth consecutive term, and his main challenger has conceded defeat.

The election was neck and neck between his right-wing party and that of his top contender, centrist political newcomer Benny Gantz. But with at least 97 percent of the votes counted, Netanyahu appears to be in the best position to form a government because of the strength of other right-wing, nationalist and religious parties.

"We respect the decision of the people," Gantz said at a press conference on Wednesday evening.

Israeli voters were choosing between some 40 different candidate lists, representing parties, alliances and individuals. Netanyahu's Likud party and Gantz's Blue and White alliance each appear to have secured 35 seats.

Netanyahu and Gantz, a former military chief of staff, both declared victory shortly after the polls closed. But according , parties in the right-wing bloc total are poised to take 65 seats, eclipsing the 55 seats from the center-left bloc that would likely align with Gantz.

He and other leaders in his party have indicated that they will act as opposition to Netanyahu in parliament, rather than joining his coalition.

"We didn't win in this round. We will make Likud's life hell in the opposition," said Yair Lapid, another leader of the Blue and White alliance, according to Reuters.

On Wednesday, Gantz wrote this message to his supporters, according to the Associated Press: "Our voters asked for hope and we gave it to them. They wanted a different way and we outlined it."

Israel's president, Reuven Rivlin, is charged with declaring which candidate will have the first opportunity to try to put together a government. He's set to meet with party leaders for their nominations, and he's announced that those meetings will be broadcast live to "ensure transparency for Israel's citizens."

In the final days of the campaign, Netanyahu has vowed to annex Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank — a move that would quash any remaining hopes of a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

As NPR's Daniel Estrin reported, Palestinian official Saeb Erekat saw Netanyahu's victory as a sign that the occupation was far from over.

"They want their occupation to be endless, and they want us to live under a continued deeper apartheid system than the one that existed in the darkest hours of South Africa's apartheid," Erekat said.

One major complicating factor for Netanyahu is that he is accused of corruption and could face indictment for bribery and other charges. The allegations are related to allegedly accepting gifts from wealthy businessmen and allegedly conspiring with media moguls to trade favors in exchange for positive coverage.

If indicted, "it could spell the beginning of the end for Netanyahu. Because there are questions here — will all the parties in such a Netanyahu government stand by his side?" Estrin reported. "Will Netanyahu's own party start preparing for the day after and maybe even hold a leadership contest within the party?"

He added: "This could be Netanyahu's shortest term if he does indeed secure the government."

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Merrit Kennedy is a reporter for NPR's News Desk. She covers a broad range of issues, from the latest developments out of the Middle East to science research news.