Benjamin Netanyahu scored a landslide victory in the Israels's election, final results showed Wednesday, a stunning turnaround that so far has been met with silence from President Barack Obama and the White House.
With nearly all votes counted, Netanyahu's Likud party appeared to have earned 30 out of parliament's 120 seats and was in a position to build a coalition government with its nationalist, religious and ultra-Orthodox Jewish allies, reported The Associated Press.
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.
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 three weeks.
"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. "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 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 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. Ten parties in all made it into parliament.
Herzog, who appeared poised only days ago to stage a coup, 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.
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.
Netanyahu also infuriated the White House early this month when he delivered a speech to U.S. Congress criticizing an emerging nuclear deal with Iran. Reaching a two-state solution to the Palestinian conflict has been a top foreign policy priority for President Obama as well.
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," he said.
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