Final Israeli election results boost Netanyahu's lead

Likud party ballot papers and Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's campaign fliers are seen on the ground after polls for Israel's general elections closed in Tel Aviv, Israel, Wednesday, April 10, 2019. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)

JERUSALEM — A final count of election ballots on Thursday granted Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's Likud party an additional seat in parliament, making it the largest faction in the Knesset and punctuating the Israeli leader's victory.

The results released by Israel's central election commission showed Likud capturing a total of 36 seats in the 120-seat Knesset, compared to 35 seats for its main rival, the centrist Blue and White party. An earlier count had the two parties deadlocked.

Altogether, Likud and its traditional Jewish ultra-Orthodox and nationalist allies command a 65-55 majority in parliament, putting Netanyahu in position to head the next coalition government. On Wednesday, Blue and White's leaders conceded defeat.

The final count showed another nationalist faction, the New Right party of Education Minister Naftali Bennett and Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked, falling just short of the necessary 3.25% of the votes needed to get into parliament.

Although the ballot count is complete, commission head Hanan Melzer said the results were not official and still subject to review. He said final certified results are to be handed to the country's president next Wednesday.

New Right, which fell just a few hundred votes short of entering parliament, said it would challenge the count.

The results presented late Thursday did not significantly alter earlier results from Tuesday's election. They included a count of votes of soldiers, diplomats, prisoners and hospital patients who vote in unusual circumstances.

The only shift was that Likud picked up one seat from one of its traditional allies, the ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism.

The New Right had one of the most disappointing performances of the election. The pair of popular pro-settler ministers split from their religious-nationalist Jewish Home party and sought greater power by appealing to new secular voters. The maneuver backfired.

Netanyahu still managed to cruise to a relatively easy victory that secures him a fourth consecutive term in office, and fifth overall.

One of the major factors hastening Netanyahu's victory was the low voter turnout among Israel's Arab residents, which was below 50 percent.

Netanyahu's campaign against Arab politicians, together with a new alliance with anti-Arab extremists and the passage last year of a contentious nation-state law that enshrined Israel as the homeland of the Jewish people alone, deepened calls for an election boycott in Arab communities.

Arab leaders accused Netanyahu of demonizing their sector throughout the campaign. Only a big push in the final hours of voting secured the survival of the two primary Arab parties. Still, they saw their representation dip.

On election day, the predominantly Arab Hadash party filed a complaint that hundreds of Likud activists were monitoring Arab polling stations with hidden cameras.

Israel's elections committee swiftly banned the cameras, but Arab leaders accused Likud of intimidating voters. Netanyahu defended the practice, saying cameras helped guarantee a "legitimate" vote.

On Thursday, a public relations firm said it orchestrated the operation on Likud's behalf, distributing 1,200 hidden cameras, and claiming to have played a role in the suppressed vote.

"We put together an operation that contributed crucially to one of the most important achievements of the right-wing bloc: keeping the Arab vote legal," the PR company, Kaizler Inbar, wrote in a Facebook post, accompanied by a picture of firm executives alongside Netanyahu and his wife Sara. "Thanks to us placing observers in every polling station we managed to lower the voter turnout to under 50 percent, the lowest in recent years!"

Lucy Aharish, a prominent Arab media personality, said it definitely played a role and was "insulting" that the ruling party would spy on the voting of its own citizens.

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