Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has won a surprise victory in Israel’s election on Wednesday after tacking hard to the right in the final days of campaigning, including abandoning a commitment to negotiate a Palestinian State.
In a four-day pre-election blitz, Netanyahu made a series of promises designed to shore up his Likud base and draw voters from other right-wing and nationalist parties, including a pledge to go on building settlements on occupied land and saying that there would be no Palestinian State if he is re-elected.
Exit polls had forecast a dead heat but with almost all votes counted, results gave Likud a clear lead over its main rival, the centre-left Zionist Union.
With 99.5 percent of votes counted, Likud won 30 seats in the 120-member Knesset, comfortably defeating the Zionist Union opposition on 24 seats.
It amounted to a dramatic and unexpected victory – the last opinion polls published four days before the vote showed the Zionist Union with a four-seat advantage over Likud.
The outcome gave Mr Netanyahu a strong chance of forming a right-wing coalition government.
It puts the incumbent on course to clinch a fourth term and become Israel’s longest-serving Prime Minster.
In a statement, Likud said Netanyahu intended to form a new government within weeks, with negotiations already underway with the pro-settler Jewish Home party led by Naftali Bennett, as well as with religious groups.
Despite the numbers stacking up in Netanyahu’s favor, Zionist Union leader, Isaac Herzog said “everything is still open” and that he already had spoken to party leaders about the possibility of forming a government, although, the arithmetic for him is much harder to achieve than for Netanyahu.
Mr Netanyahu described the vote as a “great victory” for Likud, which had trailed the Zionist Union in opinion polls in the run-up to the election.
He said the result was achieved “against all odds”.
“Reality is not waiting for us,” Netanyahu said. “The citizens of Israel expect us to quickly put together a leadership that will work for them regarding security, economy and society as we committed to do – and we will do so.”