As Israel awaits official results, 69-year-old Benjamin Netanyahu appears headed toward a historic fifth term.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gestures after he speaks following the announcement of exit polls in Israel's parliamentary election at the party headquarters in Tel Aviv, Israel on April 10, 2019.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gestures after he speaks following the announcement of exit polls in Israel's parliamentary election at the party headquarters in Tel Aviv, Israel on April 10, 2019. (Reuters)

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has won the Israeli national election, based on unofficial results, securing a record fifth term in office despite running neck in neck with his challenger Benny Gantz.

Israel's Blue and White party leaders conceded defeat in Israel's election, saying they will work against Netanyahu from the opposition.

Yair Lapid, the Blue and White party's no 2 figure, told a press conference on Wednesday that though his party "did not win in this round, I respect the voters." 

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

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

Gantz says his party has "founded a true alternative rule to Netanyahu." Gantz, 59, earlier had also claimed victory, citing preliminary exit polls that were published soon after voting ended on Tuesday.

The closely-contested race was widely seen in Israel as a referendum on Netanyahu's character and record in the face of corruption allegations. 

Final results were expected by Friday. However, Netanyahu said he had already begun talks with prospective coalition allies.

Netanyahu tweeted on Wednesday that US President Donald Trump had called him to congratulate him on his re-election for a fifth term.

"The two leaders agreed to continue working in the coming years in the closest way for Israel and the United States," Netanyahu said in the statement on his Twitter account.

TRT World 's Ediz Tiyansan reports from Washington on how US President Donald Trump played his role in Netanyahu's likely win.

Likud victory

The veteran right-wing leader's Likud party and Gantz's new centrist Blue and White party both won 35 seats, according to the Knesset website and the Israeli TV channels. That would mean a five-seat gain for Likud.

"It is a night of colossal victory," the 69-year-old Netanyahu told cheering supporters in a late-night speech at Likud headquarters, while cautioning that a "long night and possibly day" lay ahead awaiting official results.

Fireworks flared behind him as his wife Sara applauded and kissed him. "He's a magician," the crowd chanted.

Netanyahu, in power consecutively since 2009, has been fighting for his political survival. He faces possible indictment in three graft cases, and has denied wrongdoing in all three.

Netanyahu highlights Trump ties 

During the campaign, the rival parties accused each other of corruption, fostering bigotry and being soft on security.

Netanyahu highlighted his close relationship with Trump, who delighted Israelis and angered Palestinians by recognising Jerusalem as Israel's capital in 2017 and moving the American Embassy to the holy city last May.

Two weeks before the election, Trump signed a proclamation, with Netanyahu at his side at the White House, recognising Israeli sovereignty over the occupied Golan Heights captured from Syria in the 1967 Middle East war.

In a rare turn during the race towards the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Netanyahu further alarmed Palestinians by promising to annex Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank if re-elected. Palestinians seek a state there and in the Gaza Strip, with East Jerusalem as its capital.

During the campaign, Gantz said a government under his stewardship would pursue peace, but stopped short of committing to the establishment of a Palestinian state.

Commenting on the election, Palestinian chief negotiator Saeb Erekat said, "Israelis have voted to preserve the status quo.

They have said no to peace and yes to the occupation."

The last round of US-brokered peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians collapsed in 2014.

Trump is expected to release his administration's long-awaited Middle East peace plan after the election. If it includes Israeli concessions to the Palestinians, Netanyahu’s probable far-right coalition allies will likely object.

A close result in the election would put smaller parties in a powerful position, turning marginal political figures into kingmakers.

Once the votes are tallied, President Reuven Rivlin will ask parties that have won parliamentary seats who they support for prime minister. He will then pick a party leader to try to form a coalition, giving the candidate 28 days to do so, with a two-week extension if needed.

TRT World's Assed Baig explores the reason that Palestinians in Israel boycotted the vote.

Source: TRTWorld and agencies