Benjamin Netanyahu secures Israel election, local media reports

Head of the Blue White party Benny Gantz and his top allies Moshe Ya'alon Gabi Ashkenazi and Yair Lapid greet their party supporters following the release of election exit polls at the party headquarters in Tel Aviv

With the vast majority of votes counted in Israeli elections by Wednesday morning, Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu looked set to clinch a fifth term in office, outmaneuvering corruption charges and a strong challenger.

Should Netanyahu retain the helm, he will become the longest-serving Israeli prime minister in July, overtaking the country's founding father, David Ben-Gurion. With around 97 percent of all votes tallied, Likud has secured 26.27 percent of ballots, giving the party 25 seats in the 120-seat Knesset, according to the parliament's website. The former military chief Mr Gantz ran, essentially, as the man who was not Mr Netanyahu but could match him for "toughness" on security.

In fact, the outcome of Israel's elections essentially confirms what we knew.

Meanwhile, Gantz claimed victory Tuesday, after two out of three TV exit polls gave his centrist party the biggest showing in parliamentary seats.

Fireworks flared behind him as his wife Sara applauded and kissed him.

"It's a night of tremendous victory", Netanyahu told supporters early Wednesday, adding that he had already begun talking to fellow right-wing and religious parties about forming a coalition. However, the right-religious bloc that has supported Netanyahu in previous governments controls 65 seats, while the center-left that would support Gantz has only 55. But, neither party has enough seats to form a government on its own.

Rightwing Union leader MK Bezalel Smotrich on Tuesday night declared that his party would hold Netanyahu's feet to the fire on his sovereignty promise, even if all he had meant was to win the settlers' vote.

The contest was the political fight of Netanyahu's life.

Overnight, with fewer of the votes counted, Blue and White still appeared to be ahead by one seat and Gantz projected optimism that he would be tasked with building a coalition.

He engaged in populist rhetoric that critics said amounted to the demonisation of Arab Israelis and others.

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But the right result and the near-success of newcomer Mr Gantz showed the country that there is a viable alternative to Mr Netanyahu's decade in power.

Arab politicians called it an attempt at intimidation, while Netanyahu said cameras would prevent fraud.

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.

Benjamin Netanyahu has sought to portray himself as Israel's essential statesman. But some analysts believe that Washington's relatively less controversial Golan Heights recognition may have paved the way.

But Netanyahu also faces an ongoing criminal investigation.

By 8:00pm (1700 GMT), overall turnout was 61.3 per cent compared to 62.4 per cent at the same time in 2015 elections.

Hanan Ashrawi, a senior Palestinian official, said Israel chose to entrench "the status quo of oppression, occupation, annexation and dispossession".

Two of Netanyahu's potential allies, hawkish former Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman and economic-centric Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon, have yet to formally confirm they would sit with Netanyahu and could emerge as wild cards.

He has been premier for a total of more than 13 years.

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