Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid on Thursday conceded defeat to Benjamin Netanyahu in this week's election, setting the stage for the former Israeli leader to return to power.
Lapid congratulated Netanyahu and instructed his staff to prepare an organized transition of power, his office said.
“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.”
Lapid, who has been interim prime minister for four months, made the announcement after a near-final vote count showed Netanyahu securing a parliamentary majority with his religious and ultranationalist allies. Final results were expected later Thursday.
The former prime minister is expected to form the country’s most conservative government in history when he takes power, likely in the coming weeks.
Israel held its fifth election in four years on Tuesday, a protracted political crisis that saw voters divided over Netanyahu's fitness to serve while on trial for corruption.
The final ballots were still being counted late Thursday. Netanyahu and his ultranationalist and ultra-Orthodox allies were expected to control 64 or 65 seats in Israel's 120-seat parliament, or Knesset. His opponents in the current coalition, led by Lapid, were expected to win 50 or 51 seats, with the remainder held by a small unaffiliated Arab party.
Netanyahu's victory and his comfortable majority puts an end to Israel's political instability, for now. But it leaves Israelis split over their leadership and over the values that define their state: Jewish or democratic.
Netanyahu's top partner in the government is expected to be the Religious Zionism party, whose main candidate, Itamar Ben-Gvir, is a disciple of an anti-Arab rabbi.
Ben-Gvir says he wants to end Palestinian autonomy in parts of the West Bank and until recently hung a photo in his home of Baruch Goldstein, an American-Israeli who killed 29 Palestinians in a West Bank shooting attack in 1994. Ben-Gvir, who seeks to deport Arab legislators, says he wants to be put in charge of the national police force.
Religious Zionism has promised to enact changes to Israeli law that could make Netanyahu's legal woes disappear and, along with other nationalist allies, they want to weaken the independence of the judiciary and concentrate more power in the hands of lawmakers.
The party's leader, Bezalel Smotrich, a West Bank settler who has made anti-Arab remarks, has his sights set on the Defense Ministry. That would make him the overseer of the military and Israel's West Bank military occupation.
As the votes were being counted, Israeli-Palestinian violence was flaring, with at least four Palestinians killed in separate incidents, and an Israeli police officer wounded lightly in a stabbing.
Ben-Gvir used the incidents to promise a tougher approach to Palestinian attackers once he enters government.
“The time has come to restore security to the streets,” he tweeted. “The time has come for a terrorist who goes out to carry out an attack to be taken out!”
The surging power of Israel's right came at the expense of its left. The Labor party, once a mainstream fixture of Israeli politics and which supports Palestinian statehood, was teetering just above the electoral threshold.
As vote counting neared an end, the anti-occupation Meretz appeared headed for political exile for the first time since it was founded in the 1990s.
Meretz's leader, Zehava Galon, conceded the party would not be in the next parliament. “This is a disaster for Meretz, a disaster for the country and yes, a disaster for me," she said.
After the results are formally announced, Israel's ceremonial president taps one candidate, who will be Netanyahu, to form a government.
He will then have four weeks to do so. Netanyahu is likely to wrap up talks within that time, but Religious Zionism is expected to drive a hard bargain for its support.
Netanyahu, Israel's longest-serving leader, was ousted in 2021 after 12 consecutive years in power by an ideologically-diverse coalition that included for the first time in Israel's history a small Arab party. The coalition collapsed in the spring over infighting.
Netanyahu is charged with fraud, breach of trust, and accepting bribes in a series of scandals involving wealthy associates and media moguls. He denies wrongdoing, seeing the trial as a witch hunt against him orchestrated by a hostile media and a biased judicial system.
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