TEL AVIV, Israel – Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s ruling Likud Party scored a resounding victory in the country’s election, final results showed Wednesday, a stunning turnaround after a tight race that had put his lengthy rule in jeopardy.
With nearly all the votes counted, Likud appeared to have earned 30 out of parliament’s 120 seats and was in a position to build with relative ease a coalition government with its nationalist, religious and ultra-Orthodox Jewish allies. Such a government would likely put Israel at odds with the international community over Palestinian statehood and continue to clash with the White House over hard-line policies.
The election was widely seen as a referendum on Netanyahu, who has governed the country for the past six years. Recent opinion polls indicated he was in trouble, giving chief rival Isaac Herzog of the opposition Zionist Union a slight lead. Exit polls Tuesday showed the two sides deadlocked but once the actual results came pouring in early Wednesday, Likud soared forward. Zionist Union wound up with just 24 seats.
Even before the final results were known, Netanyahu declared victory and pledged to form a new government quickly.
“Against all odds, we achieved a great victory for the Likud,” Netanyahu told supporters at his election night headquarters. “I am proud of the people of Israel, who in the moment of truth knew how to distinguish between what is important and what is peripheral, and to insist on what is important.”
Netanyahu focused his campaign primarily on security issues, while his opponents instead pledged to address the country’s high cost of living and accused the leader of being out of touch with everyday people. Netanyahu will likely look to battle that image by adding to his government Moshe Kahlon, whose upstart Kulanu party captured 10 seats with a campaign focused almost entirely on bread-and-butter economic issues. Kahlon is expected to become the country’s next finance minister.
A union of four largely Arab-backed factions became Israel’s third largest party – with 14 seats – and gave Israel’s Arab minority significant leverage in parliament for the first time.
Herzog, who appeared poised only days ago to stage a coup, conceded defeat, saying that he called Netanyahu and offered him congratulations. He signalled that he would not join forces with Netanyahu and would rather head to the opposition.
“I think that at this moment what Israel needs most of all is another voice, a voice that offers an alternative and a voice that tells it the truth,” he said outside his Tel Aviv home.
Netanyahu’s return to power for a fourth term likely spells trouble for Mideast peace efforts and could further escalate tensions with the United States.
Netanyahu, who already has a testy relationship with President Barack Obama, took a sharp turn to the right in the final days of the campaign, staking out a series of hard-line positions that will put him on a collision course with much of the international community.
In a dramatic policy reversal, he said he now opposes the creation of a Palestinian state – a key policy goal of the White House and the international community. He also promised to expand construction in Jewish areas of east Jerusalem, the section of the city claimed by the Palestinians as their capital.
The Palestinians, fed up after years of deadlock with Netanyahu, are now likely to press ahead with their attempts to bring war crimes charges against Israel in the International Criminal Court. Renewed violence could also loom.
Netanyahu infuriated the White House early this month when he delivered a speech to the U.S. Congress criticizing an emerging nuclear deal with Iran. The speech was arranged with Republican leaders and not co-ordinated with the White House ahead of time.
In Washington, White House spokesman Josh Earnest said Obama was confident strong U.S.-Israeli ties would endure far beyond the election, regardless of the victor.