Final election results in Israel have confirmed a clear victory for former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, which should herald a triumphant comeback for the veteran politician at the head of a solidly right-wing alliance.
The current caretaker leader has conceded defeat after the results showed showed Netanyahu’s Likud Party and its far-right, ultranationalist and religious partners won a clear parliamentary majority, with 64 of the Knesset's 120 seats.
Their win should also bring to an end an unprecedented stalemate in Israel after five elections in less than four years.
But the new government's agenda, including a tough line against the Palestinians, promises to further polarise a deeply divided nation and risks antagonising Israel’s closest allies abroad.
Acting prime minister Yair Lapid conceded defeat and called Netanyahu to congratulate him shortly before the final results were released. He said he had instructed his staff to prepare an organised transition of power.
“The state of Israel comes before any political consideration,” Lapid said. “I wish Netanyahu success, for the sake of the people of Israel and the state of Israel.”
Netanyahu still has to conduct negotiations with his partners or be officially tasked by the president with forming a government, but is expected to put together a coalition in the coming weeks.
US urges 'tolerance and respect for all'
The White House on Thursday said it was looking forward to working with Israel on “our shared histories and values.”
US State Department spokesman Ned Price said the US hopes Israel “will continue to share the values of an open, democratic society, including tolerance and respect for all in civil society, particularly for minority groups.”
Italy’s new far-right premier, Giorgia Meloni, congratulated Netanyahu on Twitter. “Ready to strengthen our friendship and our bilateral relations, to better face our common challenges,″ she wrote.
Hungary's nationalist prime minister, Viktor Orban, also congratulated Netanyahu, calling him “a friend of Hungary.”
Concerns over far-right ally
Israeli forces killed four Palestinians in the occupied West Bank and Jerusalem on Thursday, the Palestinian health ministry said, including an Islamic Jihad militant and a man accused by police of stabbing an officer.
The other two fatalities were shot dead by troops during West Bank raids, the ministry said.
Later in the evening, air attack sirens went off in southern Israel after militants in Gaza fired a rocket that was apparently intercepted by missile defences, the military said.
"The time has come to impose order here. The time has come for there to be a landlord," tweeted Itamar Ben-Gvir of the far-right Religious Zionism party, Likud's likely senior partner, in response to news of the stabbing.
Ben-Gvir, whose party will be the third-largest in parliament, has built a career on confrontations with Palestinians and espouses anti-Arab views that were once largely confined to an extremist fringe.
He says he wants to end Palestinian autonomy in parts of the occupied West Bank and maintain Israel’s occupation over the Palestinians indefinitely. Until recently, he hung a photo in his home of a Jewish militant who murdered 29 Palestinian worshippers in a 1994 mosque shooting in the West Bank.
Ben-Gvir has labeled Arab lawmakers “terrorists” and called for their deportation. The far-right lawmaker, who recently brandished a pistol while visiting a tense Palestinian neighbourhood in east Jerusalem, wants to be put in charge of the country’s police force.
However, it is still unclear what position Ben-Gvir might hold in a future government. Since the election, both he and Netanyahu have pledged to serve all citizens.
His ascendancy has stirred alarm among the 21% Arab minority and centre-left Jews — and especially among Palestinians.
Netanyahu seeks relief from corruption trial
Ben-Gvir's Religious Zionism party has promised to enact changes to Israeli law that could halt Netanyahu’s corruption trial and make the charges disappear.
Along with other nationalist allies, they also want to weaken the independence of the judiciary and concentrate more power in the hands of lawmakers.
Netanyahu says the trial is a witch hunt against him orchestrated by a hostile media and a biased judicial system.
Israel’s longest-serving leader, he was ousted in 2021 after 12 consecutive years in power by an ideologically-diverse coalition. The coalition collapsed in the spring over infighting.