AFP/ PTI

Netanyahu expected to receive formal nod Wednesday to remain PM

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Jerusalem, Apr 16 : Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is expected to receive formal backing to remain premier for a fifth term Wednesday, but tough negotiations to form a coalition government await following last week's elections.

Israeli President Reuven Rivlin must choose who will form the next government and is expected to pick Netanyahu to do so on Wednesday night after final election results are announced.

Rivlin's office said Tuesday he planned to meet with his choice for premier at 7:00 pm (1600 GMT) Wednesday and that both would speak publicly about an hour later.

The final vote results, published Tuesday evening by the central elections committee, put Netanyahu's right-wing Likud at 35 seats, the same as his main rivals from the Blue and White alliance led by ex-military chief Benny Gantz.

Together with allied right-wing and religious parties, Netanyahu has received the backing of 65 lawmakers from the 120-seat parliament, who told Rivlin over Monday and Tuesday meetings they thought the incumbent premier should be tasked with forming the next coalition government.

Only 45 members of parliament supported Gantz, with the 10 members of the Arab parties recommending nobody.

At a Tuesday night toast with activists and supporters, Netanyahu hailed a "sweet" and "historic" victory, pledging to work to unite society after a heated election campaign, during which he resorted to right-wing populism which Arab Israelis felt amounted to their demonisation.

"I want all parts of Israeli society, Jews and non-Jews, to be part of the great success story called Israel," he said.

"I will be everyone's prime minister," he said.

Netanyahu also noted he was congratulated over his victory by many world leaders, including "many" from unnamed Arab and Muslim countries.

"I believe there is a great opening for the future here, a great opening for hope," he said.

Netanyahu's bliss will soon be replaced by the headache of reconciling the clashing positions of his future coalition partners, who differ radically -- mainly on matters of religion and state.

Former defence minister Avigdor Lieberman had held off on publicly backing Netanyahu until Monday night, when he did so before supporters.

His party, Yisrael Beitenu, also told Rivlin on Tuesday that it would back Netanyahu and its five seats will be crucial for the prime minister as he forms his next coalition.

But Lieberman also said he would condition his joining the coalition on the adoption of a law aimed at having ultra-Orthodox Jews serve in the military like their secular counterparts.

He has insisted that the version of the law he proposed when he was defence minister be adopted in full and says he will even remain in the opposition or be prepared to go to new elections if he does not receive assurances on the subject.

Ultra-Orthodox Jews studying in religious seminaries are currently exempt from mandatory military service, a practice many Israelis view as unfair.

But attempts to change the law have met with strong opposition from ultra-Orthodox political parties, which according to the final results would control 16 seats in the next governing coalition.

On Tuesday, United Torah Judaism -- one of the two ultra-Orthodox parties at hand -- stressed they were not prepared to compromise over Lieberman's demands, even at the risk of Netanyahu failing to form a coalition.

"We have already proven we won't have a problem to face another election," the party said in a statement.

Ultra-Orthodox Jews make up some 10 percent of Israel's population of nearly nine million.

Complications in passing a law on the subject contributed to the holding of early elections last week.

Lieberman resigned as defence minister in November after accusing Netanyahu of being soft on Hamas, the Islamist movement that rules the Gaza Strip.

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