PM Netanyahu's Likud party wins Israel general elections, rival concedes defeat

TEL AVIV (REUTERS, AFP) - With nearly all the votes counted on Wednesday in Israel’s rollercoaster election, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu looked set for a triumphant return that will likely deepen tensions with the Palestinians and the West, as his rival conceded defeat.

His Likud party was on course for 29 seats in the 120-member Parliament with 96 per cent of ballots tallied, while his nearest rival the centre-left Zionist Union trailed with 24, public radio said.The Central Elections Committee website said Likud had garnered just over 23 per cent of the vote and the Zionist Union almost 19 per cent.

Opposition leader Isaac Herzog said on Wednesday he had spoken with Mr Netanyahu to congratulate him on his election victory. “A few minutes ago I spoke with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and congratulated him on his achievement and wished him luck,” Mr Herzog told reporters.He said his leftist Zionist Union party would continue to be an alternative to Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud.

Likud activists at a temporary headquarters set up in a Tel Aviv convention hall danced in celebration at the late surge.

On the basis of the exit polls alone, which indicated the hard-fought race had ended in a dead heat, Mr Netanyahu swiftly claimed victory late on Tuesday. 

By morning, with results in from 99 per cent of polling stations, Likud had powered past the Zionist Union and Mr Netanyahu seemed set to get the nod from Israel’s president to try to put together a coalition

“Against all odds we achieved a great victory for the Likud. We achieved a great victory for the national camp under the leadership of the Likud. We achieved a great victory for our people of Israel!” Mr Netanyahu told cheering supporters at campaign headquarters in Tel Aviv.

“Now we have to build a strong and stable government,” he added.

He said he had spoken to leaders of other right-wing parties and urged them to form a “strong and stable” government with him without delay.

“He’s a magician, he’s a magician,” the crowd chanted.

Mr Netanyahu had put security at the forefront of his campaign, arguing he is the only one capable of protecting Israel from an Iranian nuclear threat and vowing never to allow the Palestinians to establish a capital in east Jerusalem.

But the Palestinians vowed to step up their diplomatic campaign for statehood. “It is clear that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will form the next government, so we say clearly that we will go to the International Criminal Court in the Hague and we will speed up, pursue and intensify” all diplomatic efforts, chief negotiator Saeb Erakat told AFP.

Citing the Israeli leader’s rejection of a Palestinian state, Mr Erekat said: “Mr Netanyahu has done nothing in his political life but to destroy the two-state solution.”

In a late appeal to the far-right ahead of the polls, Mr Netanyahu ruled out the establishment of a Palestinian state if reelected, effectively reneging on his 2009 endorsement of a two-state solution.Mr Herzog has repeatedly called for the creation of a Palestinian state alongside Israel.Mr Netanyahu made a last-minute call on his supporters to go to the polls to counter a high turnout among Arab Israelis.“The rule of the rightwing is in danger. Arab voters are going to the polls in droves!” he said in a video on Facebook. “Go to the polling stations! Vote Likud!”

According to exit polls, the main Arab parties took third place with 13 seats after joining forces to challenge the Premier.

A fourth term for Mr Netanyahu would make him Israel’s longest serving leader. He can tap far-right and religious parties – his traditional allies for support – but will also need to enlist centrists who have been non-committal.Mr Netanyahu pulled off the feat with a pitch for ultranationalist votes in the final days of the hard-fought campaign, using tactics that could deepen a feud with the White House.Seeking to persuade supporters of smaller right-wing parties to “come home” to Likud, Mr Netanyahu promised more building of Jewish settlements. Cautioning that yielding territory would open the way for attacks against Israel by Islamist militants, Mr Netanyahu said the Palestinians would not get their own state if he were re-elected.Those sweeping promises, if carried out, would further isolate Israel from the United States and the European Union, which believe a peace deal must accommodate Palestinian demands for a state in the occupied West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza.Mr Netanyahu has focused on Iran’s nuclear programme and militant Islam. But many Israelis had said they were tiring of the message, and the centre-left campaigned on social and economic issues, surging in polls before election day.The Obama administration has been angry with Mr Netanyahu since he addressed the United States Congress two weeks ago at the invitation of Republican lawmakers, to oppose US nuclear negotiations with Iran.

Opinion polls in the run-up to the ballot had shown Zionist Union with a three- to four-seat advantage over Likud, suggesting the public had warmed to Mr Herzog, who won over voters with flashes of wit after enduring being lampooned for his short stature and reedy voice.A new centrist party, Kulanu, led by former communications minister Moshe Kahlon could be a major player in coalition talks. After the balloting ended, Mr Kahlon said he did not rule out a partnership with either Likud or Zionist Union.Turnout was around 72 percent, higher than the last election in 2013.After consultation with all parties, it will be up to President Reuven Rivlin to name the candidate he deems best placed to try to form a coalition. The nominee will have up to 42 days to do so.Mr Rivlin has called for national unity, signalling he favours a government that would pair both Likud and Zionist Union – a partnership Netanyahu rejected during the campaign.Mr Naftali Bennett, leader of the ultranationalist Jewish Home party, said he had spoken with Mr Netanyahu and agreed to open “accelerated” coalition talks with him.