President Donald Trump on Wednesday congratulated incumbent Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on his apparent win in the country's elections.
"I'd like to congratulate Bibi Netanyahu, it looks like that race has been won by him," Trump told reporters on the South Lawn of the White House. "It may be a little early, but it looks like he's won it in good fashion."
"He's been a great ally and he's a friend," Trump said. "That was a well thought out race." Trump later called Netanyahu on the phone to congratulate him, the prime minister's office said in a statement.
As of Wednesday morning, vote counts appeared to give Netanyahu a historic fifth term in office. His Likud party was deadlocked with the new Blue and White party led by former military chief Benny Gantz with 35 seats each in the 120-member parliament. But Likud and its traditional political allies were in command of a 65-55 majority, according to The Associated Press. Israel's president, Reuven Rivlin, will consult with party representatives next week before picking the candidate with the best chance of assembling a parliamentary majority, according to AP.
Trump said a government led by Netanyahu would improve the odds of reaching a peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians.
"The fact that Bibi won, I think we'll see some pretty good action in terms of peace. Everybody said, and I never made it a promise, 'you can't have peace in the Middle East with Israel and the Palestinians.' But I think we have a chance, and I think now we have a better chance with Bibi having won," Trump said.
Trump is one of the staunchest allies Netanyahu and his right-wing coalition have had, even surpassing the traditionally close alliance that Israeli leaders and American presidents have maintained for 70 years.
Early on in his first term, Trump named his son-in-law, White House adviser Jared Kushner, to lead an effort to come up with a Middle East peace plan. Now, two years later, the White House has yet to unveil any firm proposals on the subject. Asked on Wednesday about the status of the efforts, National Security Adviser John Bolton said, "We've been in the preparatory stages to getting it ready. And I think we're going to see that coming out in the very near future."
In the absence of a road map for peace, however, the Trump administration has instituted several U.S. policies in the Middle East that experts interpret as having helped boost Netanyahu's domestic political fortunes.
Among them: Trump's 2017 decision to move the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, breaking decades of official U.S. policy. At the time, Trump called the move "a long-overdue step to advance the peace process and to work towards a lasting agreement."
But few experts in the region believed the embassy move would, in fact, advance the peace process.
"It's not just that it's provoked violence or that it's made the United States look like the biased broker instead of the honest broker," former U.S. Ambassador to Israel Martin Indyk said of the embassy move in 2018. "It also has set the process back in a way that all this loose talk about how it's going to advance peace is ludicrous."
In the run-up to the election, Trump last month recognized Israel's sovereignty over the Golan Heights, which Israel captured from Syria during Six-Day War in 1967 and subsequently annexed.
On the eve of the election, the Trump administration announced Monday that it would designate an entire branch of the Iranian military as a terrorist organization. The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps has about 125,000 active duty troops in Iran, and its members are engaged in nearly all aspects of Iranian society.
Like the embassy move before it, the decision to designate the IRGC as a terrorist organization was unilateral and was not done in concert with U.S. allies in Europe or Asia. It remained unclear Tuesday exactly how the designation would affect individuals and businesses operating outside the United States.
During a call with reporters Monday, a senior administration official dodged the issue of whether the United States had a plan to win European support for the designation.
The official also declined to say whether the announcement was deliberately timed to give Netanyahu a boost in the polls.
Over in Israel, the prime minister took credit for the IRGC announcement, thanking Trump in Hebrew on Twitter for "responding to another of my important requests, which serves the interests of our countries and countries of the region."
Netanyahu's English-language version of the tweet also thanked Trump, however, it made no mention of any request that Trump had acted upon.