By ARON HELLER
TEL AVIV, Israel (AP) — Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's right-wing
Likud Party scored a resounding victory in Israel's election, final
results showed Wednesday, a stunning turnaround after a tight race that
had put his lengthy rule in jeopardy.
Netanyahu surged ahead after a last-minute lurch to the right in which
he opposed Palestinian statehood and vowed continued settlement
construction, setting the stage for fresh confrontations with the White
House just weeks after criticizing U.S. talks with Iran in a divisive
address to Congress.
With nearly all 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.
On Wednesday, Netanyahu visited the Western Wall in Jerusalem's Old
City, a remnant of the biblical Jewish Temple and the holiest site where
Jews can pray. "I'm touched by the weight of the responsibility that
the people of Israel have put on my shoulders. I wish to say that I will
do anything in my power to ensure the well-being and security of all
the citizens of Israel," he said.
election was widely seen as a referendum on Netanyahu, who has governed
for the past six years. Recent opinion polls indicated he was in
trouble, giving chief rival Isaac Herzog's center-left Zionist Union a
slight lead. Exit polls Tuesday showed the two sides deadlocked but once
the actual results came pouring in early Wednesday, the Zionist Union
dropped to just 24 seats.
Given the final results, it is all but assured that Israel's largely
ceremonial President Reuven Rivlin will task Netanyahu with forming a
new government. Netanyahu says he hopes to do so quickly, within two to
"Against all odds, we achieved a great victory for the Likud," Netanyahu
told supporters at his election night headquarters, declaring victory
even before final results were known.
Netanyahu focused his campaign primarily on security issues, while his
opponents pledged to address the high cost of living and housing crisis
while accusing him of being out of touch.
Netanyahu will likely look to
battle that image now 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 be
the 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. Ten parties in
all made it into parliament.
conceded defeat, saying he called Netanyahu and offered him
congratulations. He signaled 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. "It must be clear that for
the citizens of Israel, the challenges remain the same, the problems are
the same. Nothing has changed."
Netanyahu's return to power for a fourth term likely spells trouble for
Mideast peace efforts and could further escalate tensions with
Netanyahu, who already has a testy relationship with President Barack
Obama, staked out a series of hard-line positions in the final days of
the race that will put him on a collision course with much of the
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, where violence has increased in recent
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.
"Now, more than ever, the international community must act," said Palestinian official Saeb Erekat.
The world overwhelmingly supports the establishment of a Palestinian
state in the West Bank, east Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip, areas
captured by Israel in 1967, and opposes settlement construction.
With the race close, Netanyahu reneged on his previous stated support
for a Palestinian state in an attempt to shore up his hawkish base. But
peace talks last collapsed nearly a year ago, and it's unclear whether
the next government will pursue any drastic policy changes.
Netanyahu also infuriated the White House earlier 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
coordinated with the White House ahead of time in a rare breach of
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.
Throughout the campaign, Netanyahu portrayed himself as the only
politician capable of confronting Israel's numerous security challenges.
Avi Degani, president of the Geocartography polling institute, who had
predicted an outright Likud victory, said ultimately Netanyahu's
experience prevailed. "There was a situation where many people wanted to
replace him but there was no one whom they wanted to replace him with,"
Rivlin will now meet with all ten parties that entered parliament and
hear their recommendation for who should try to form the next
government. Rivlin will then task the leading candidate, almost
certainly Netanyahu, with putting together a coalition that makes up a
majority in parliament.
Netanyahu will remain prime minister throughout
Netanyahu appears to have 67 backers who would join a right-wing
nationalist government, but he could still surprise and try to reach out
to centrist rivals in order to present a more moderate face to the