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Netanyahu set to return to office in Israel after PM concedes

Benjamin Netanyahu, former Israeli Prime Minister and the head of Likud party, accompanied by his wife Sara waves to his supporters after first exit poll results for the Israeli Parliamentary election at his party's headquarters in Jerusalem, Wednesday, Nov. 2, 2022. (AP Photo/Tsafrir Abayov)

JERUSALEM (AP) — Former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Thursday appeared set to return to the office after winning this week’s national election, with the current caretaker prime minister conceding defeat.

Final results showed Netanyahu’s Likud Party and its nationalist and religious partners capturing a solid majority in Israel’s Knesset, or parliament.

Netanyahu’s return is good for the security of Israel and for the nation’s relationship with Christians, Southern Baptist Messianic leader Ric Worshill told Baptist Press.

“I’m a firm believer that he is the most qualified to run that country. I personally believe that and most of my contacts believe the same thing, it’s good for the security of the nation,” Worshill, executive director of the Southern Baptist Messianic Fellowship, told Baptist Press. “He’s also one of the most pro-Christian people I know who’s in leadership in Israel.

“After the election, with the results, my computer lit up with people saying, ‘Praise the Lord.’ My Facebook lit up with people saying, ‘Praise the Lord.’’

Worshill has long supported Netanyahu and spoke with him by phone during a 2013 visit to Israel. Most Messianic Southern Baptists are not very political regarding U.S.-Israeli relations, Worshill said, but are mostly concerned with morality and the safety and support of Israel.

Netanyahu’s strong showing promised to end the political gridlock that has paralyzed Israel for the past three and a half years. But the planned agenda of the new government expected to take office – including an overhaul of the country’s legal system and a tough line against the Palestinians – promises to be polarizing.

Israel on Tuesday held its fifth election since 2019 in a race, like the previous four, that was widely seen as a referendum on Netanyahu’s fitness to rule as he faces corruption charges. While the previous races ended in deadlock, Netanyahu managed a disciplined campaign that gave him the edge over a divided and disorganized opposition.

The acting prime minister, Yair Lapid, conceded defeat and called Netanyahu to congratulate him shortly before the final results were released. Lapid said he had instructed his staff to prepare an organized 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.”

There was no immediate comment from Netanyahu.

According to the unofficial final results, Netanyahu and allies captured 64 seats in Israel’s 120-seat Knesset. His opponents in the outgoing coalition, led by Lapid, won 51 seats, with the remainder held by a small unaffiliated Arab faction. Netanyahu still has to conduct negotiations with his partners, but is expected to form a coalition in the coming weeks.

The election focused heavily on which values are meant to define the state: Jewish or democratic. In the end, voters favored their Jewish identity.

Netanyahu’s main governing partner is expected to be Religious Zionism, a far-right party whose main candidate, Itamar Ben-Gvir has built a career on confrontations with Palestinians.

The party will be the third-largest in parliament.

Ben-Gvir says he wants to end Palestinian autonomy in parts of the occupied West Bank and maintain Israel’s occupation over the Palestinians, now in its 56th year, 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.

The White House on Thursday said it was looking forward to working with Israel on “our shared histories and values.”

But in a separate comment, State Department spokesman Ned Price said the U.S. 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.” He also reiterated support for a two-state solution between Israel and the Palestinians – an idea with little, if any, support among the incoming government.

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 in a stabbing in Jerusalem’s Old City.

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!”

While Religious Zionism could cause Netanyahu headaches abroad, it could bring him relief at home.

Netanyahu, Israel’s longest-serving leader, was ousted in 2021 after 12 consecutive years in power by a diverse coalition. The coalition collapsed in the spring over infighting.

The strong showing by Likud and its allies reflected a decades-long shift to the right by the Israeli electorate.

Israel’s dovish left wing, meanwhile, had an abysmal showing in the election. The Labor party, which was a dominant force in Israeli politics for decades and supports Palestinian statehood, squeaked into parliament with the minimum four seats. The anti-occupation Meretz was banished into political exile for the first time since it was founded three decades ago.

“This is a disaster for Meretz, a disaster for the country and yes, a disaster for me,” Meretz’s distraught leader, Zehava Galon, said in a video.

From The Associated Press. May not be republished. Baptist Press staff contributed to this report.

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  • Josef Federman