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JERUSALEM: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu secured a clear path to re-election on Wednesday, with religious-rightist parties set to hand him a parliamentary majority despite a close contest against his main centrist challenger, a vote tally showed.

With more than 97 per cent of votes counted — ballots cast by soldiers at military bases will be tallied over the next two days — Netanyahu’s conservative Likud party looked likely to muster enough support to control 65 of the Knesset’s 120 seats and be named to head the next coalition government.

It would be Netanyahu’s record fifth term as premier.

US President Donald Trump, who Netanyahu featured on campaign billboards to highlight their close relationship, phoned Netanyahu to congratulate him on his re-election, Netanyahu said, thanking his American ally for “tremendous support for Israel”.

Trump told reporters at the White House that Netanyahu’s re-election improved the chances of peace between Israel and the Palestinians. “He’s been a great ally and he’s a friend. I’d like to congratulate him on a well-thought-out race,” Trump said.

A team led by Trump’s adviser and son-in-law Jared Kushner has been working on an Israeli-Palestinian peace plan, but it has not disclosed details. Palestinians, angered by what they see as Trump’s pro-Israel bias, have called it a non-starter.

The close and often vitriolic contest was widely seen in Israel as a referendum on Netanyahu’s character and record in the face of corruption allegations. He faces possible indictment in three graft cases, and has denied wrongdoing in all of them.

Despite that, Netanyahu gained four seats compared to his outgoing coalition government, according to a spreadsheet published by the Central Elections Committee of parties that garnered enough votes to enter the next parliament.

“It is a night of colossal victory,” the 69-year-old Netanyahu told cheering supporters in a late-night speech at Likud headquarters in Tel Aviv after Tuesday’s vote.

“He’s a magician!” the crowd chanted as fireworks flared and Netanyahu kissed his wife Sara.

Tel Aviv Stock Exchange main indexes were up nearly one per cent in late trading on Wednesday, displaying confidence in a veteran prime minister who has overseen a humming economy and blunted various security threats, including from Syria.

His challenger, the new Blue and White party of ex-army chief Benny Gantz, claimed a more modest victory after winning a 35-seat tie with Likud. Unless he reverses on campaign pledges to shun Netanyahu, and joins him in a broad coalition, Gantz looked destined to lead a centre-left parliamentary opposition.

Should Netanyahu retain the helm, he will in July become the longest-serving Israeli prime minister, overtaking the country’s founding father, David Ben-Gurion. That could be scuppered if criminal charges are filed and force his removal.

Published in Dawn, April 11th, 2019