ISRAELI Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s ruling Likud Party scored a resounding surprise victory in the country’s election, final results showed yesterday – a stunning turnaround after a tight race that had put his lengthy rule in jeopardy.
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.
Such a government would probably put Israel at odds with the international community over settlement construction and its opposition to Palestinian statehood, and continue clashing with the White House over hard-line policies.
The election was widely seen as a referendum on Mr 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 on Tuesday showed the two sides deadlocked, but once the actual results came pouring in early yesterday, Likud soared forward. Zionist Union wound up with 24 seats.
Given the final results, it is all but assured that Israel’s largely ceremonial President, Reuven Rivlin, will task Mr Netanyahu with forming a new government. Mr Netanyahu says he hopes to do so quickly, within two to three weeks.
“Against all odds, we achieved a great victory for the Likud,” Mr Netanyahu told supporters at his election night headquarters, declaring victory even before final results were known. “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.”
Mr Netanyahu focused his campaign on security issues, while his opponents pledged to address the country’s high cost of living and accused the leader of being out of touch with everyday people. Mr Netanyahu will look to fight that image now by adding to his government Moshe Kahlon, whose upstart Kulanu party captured ten seats with a campaign focused almost entirely on bread-and-butter economic issues. Mr 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, giving Israel’s Arab minority significant leverage in parliament for the first time. Ten parties in all made it into parliament.
Mr Herzog, conceded defeat, saying he had called Mr Netanyahu and offered his congratulations. He signaled that he would not join forces with him, but would rather head to the opposition.
“I think 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.
Mr Netanyahu’s return to power could spell trouble for peace efforts and could further escalate tensions with the US.