JERUSALEM: Former Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu sealed his return to power Thursday, as the final vote count from elections this week gave him and his far-right allies a clear majority in parliament.
Results released by the electoral commission said that with 99 per cent of votes counted, Netanyahu's right-wing Likud party had earned 32 seats in Israel's 120-seat parliament, the Knesset.
That combined with 18 for two ultra-Orthodox Jewish parties and 14 for the rising extreme-right alliance called Religious Zionism gave the bloc supporting Netanyahu 64 seats.
The parties backing centrist caretaker Prime Minister Yair Lapid won 51 seats, a definitive win for Netanyahu that spells an end to Israel's unprecedented era of political deadlock, which forced five elections in less than four years.
The hawkish ex-premier has overseen multiple offensives against Palestinian armed groups in Gaza and, hours after his election win was confirmed, militants in the blockaded strip fired four rockets towards Israel, the army said.
One was intercepted and three others "exploded inside the Gaza strip", the army further said, confirming the first launches from the territory since a three-day conflict in August between Israel and the Islamic Jihad armed group. No group immediately claimed Thursday's launches.
Lapid called his rival Netanyahu to congratulate him on Thursday, and told "his entire office to prepare an organised transition of power", a statement from his office said.
The result sets Netanyahu up to form what may be the most right-wing government in Israeli history.
He received quick congratulations from Italy's far-right Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni, Hungary's Viktor Orban -- a long-standing Netanyahu ally -- and Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelensky, who voiced hope for a "new page" in bilateral relations.
Zelensky has been frustrated with Israel's refusal to send weapons to Ukraine, but Netanyahu may be unlikely to reverse that policy, given Israel's need to preserve ties with Russia.
The 73-year-old Netanyahu secured his comeback after 14 months in opposition. He remains on trial over corruption allegations, which he denies, with the case returning to court on Monday.
- Coalition talks -
The official, certified results will be presented on Wednesday to Israeli President Isaac Herzog, who will task Netanyahu with forming a government.
Netanyahu, who has served as premier for longer than anyone in Israel's 74-history, will then begin sharing out cabinet posts with his coalition partners.
That will likely mean prominent roles for the co-leaders of far-right Religious Zionism, which has doubled its representation since the last parliament.
Itamar Ben-Gvir, a firebrand known for anti-Arab rhetoric and incendiary calls for Israel to annex the entire West Bank, has said he wants to be public security minister, a post that would put him in charge of the police.
In recent days, Ben-Gvir has called repeatedly for the security services to use more force in countering Palestinian unrest.
"It's time we go back to being masters of our country," Ben-Gvir said on election night.
Religious Zionism's Bezalel Smotrich has said he wants to be defence minister.
The US State Department expressed veiled concern over the prospect of far-right ministers in a future coalition government, while Britain demanded all politicians "refrain from inflammatory language" and respect minorities.
Yossi Klein Halev, a researcher at Jerusalem's Shalom Hartman Institute, told AFP that "Netanyahu will have a hard time controlling his new partners".
- Arab split -
The vote was held Tuesday against a backdrop of soaring violence across Israeli-annexed east Jerusalem and the occupied West Bank.
At least 34 Palestinians and three Israelis have been killed in the territories since the start of October, according to an AFP tally.
In the latest bloodshed Thursday, an assailant stabbed an Israeli officer in Jerusalem's Old City before being shot dead, police said.
Three Palestinians, including an alleged Islamist militant commander, were also killed in confrontations with Israeli forces in the West Bank, the Palestinian health ministry said.
While many candidates cited security as a concern, none pledged to revive moribund peace talks with the Palestinians.
Palestinian prime minister Mohammad Shtayyeh said the projected results highlighted "growing extremism and racism in Israeli society".
A key factor seen as boosting Netanyahu was the split among Arab parties, who ran as three separate factions instead of the joint list that saw them win a record number of seats in March 2020.
Separately, not all the factions reached the threshold for representation in parliament, meaning their votes were wasted.
Sami Abou Shahadeh, the head of the Balad party, defended his party's decision to run independently, even though it was set to be shut out of parliament.
"We may be losing our representation in the Knesset but we won the love of our people," he said.