Netanyahu promises to form ‘strong and stable’ government but victory puts Israel on collision course with international community
Binyamin Netanyahu’s rightwing Likud party has scored a dramatic victory in Israel’s election, surging past its main rival, the centre-left Zionist Union, to win most seats in the Knesset.
Despite the scale of his win, Netanyahu’s victory is likely to carry heavy political and diplomatic costs for Israel, as he swerved sharply right in his efforts to attract an increasingly hardline vote taken largely from pro-settlement nationalist and religious parties.
Analysis Israel election: Bibi the magician pulls off a victory – but at what cost?
Election result shows Israel is divided internally but Binyamin Netanyahu’s lurch to the right risks creating further divisions with an increasingly frustrated international community
A series of exit polls released at the close of voting on Tuesday night had suggested the Zionist Union and its leader, Isaac Herzog, were neck and neck with Netanyahu.
But by Wednesday morning official results had stretched to a decisive five-seat lead for Likud of 30 seats, making it almost certain that Netanyahu would serve a third consecutive term as prime minister.
But Netanyahu appears locked on a collision course with both Palestinians and the international community after disavowing his previous support for a two-state solution made in a speech in 2009.
Netanyahu’s return to power on the back of his unequivocal opposition to the creation of a Palestinian state – a key policy of Washington and the EU – seems certain to exacerbate his already difficult relationship with the US administration of Barack Obama during the president’s final two years in office.
Supporters cheer at the Likud party campaign headquarters in Tel Aviv Facebook Twitter Pinterest
Supporters cheer at the Likud party campaign headquarters in Tel Aviv. Photograph: Jini/Xinhua Press/Corbis
Assuming he can form a government before the beginning of next month, Netanyahu will face an immediate crisis with Palestinians determined to present claims of war crimes against Israel over its 48-year occupation of the West Bank and last year’s war in Gaza on 1 April.
The chief Palestinian negotiator, Saeb Erekat, expressed those sentiments as it became clear that Netanyahu was heading for victory.
“It is clear that prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu will form the next government, and for that, we say clearly that we will go to The Hague tribunal, we will accelerate, continue and intensify,” he declared.
If Netanyahu follows through on his pledges it would put him on a collision course with the Obama administration and the European Union, which has been weighing steps including trade measures to sanction Israel for its settlements policy.
His victory also raises questions about what happens on Iran, with Obama determined to pursue negotiations towards a deal on its nuclear programme and Netanyahu determined to scupper any deal.
Isaac Herzog conceded defeat on Wednesday morning and congratulated Netanyahu on his victory. Facebook Twitter Pinterest
Isaac Herzog conceded defeat on Wednesday morning and congratulated Netanyahu on his victory. Photograph: Omer Messinger/NurPhoto/Corbis
Conceding defeat on Wednesday morning, Herzog said he had spoken with Netanyahu to congratulate him on his election victory and wish him luck.
He said his leftist Zionist Union party would continue to be an alternative to Netanyahu’s rightwing Likud. The Arab Israeli Joint List emerged as the third largest party with 14 seats.
Israel elections: Herzog concedes to Netanyahu after Likud takes most seats
Likud poised to form new coalition after defeating Zionist Union
“Against all odds: a great victory for Likud,” a beaming Netanyahu told cheering supporters in a speech at party election headquarters in Tel Aviv.
He said he had spoken to leaders of other rightwing 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 referring to Netanyahu’s long reputed skills as an election campaigner.
Netanyahu announced he would be calling on potential partners almost immediately to form a government supported by nationalist and religious parties.
“The reality isn’t waiting on us. Reality isn’t taking a break. The citizens of Israel expect us to quickly put together a leadership that will work for the sake of the country’s security, economy, and society as we promised to do, and that is what I will do.”
As it emerged that Herzog had faltered at the last minute having gone into voting with a lead of up to four seats in opinion polls before Tuesday, Netanyahu and his closest allies vowed he would seek to form a rightwing government with far right pro-settlement leader of the Jewish Home party, Naftali Bennett.
Netanyahu sealed the deal at the end of a fractious campaign marked by mud slinging, stunts and an appeal to the fear among Israel’s rightwingers that a defeat for him would have dire consequences for the country’s security.
In the last few days he made a direct appeal to national religious and settler votes vowing in unequivocal terms not to allow the creation a Palestinian state and promising to continue building in occupied east Jerusalem.
He warned in vague terms of a conspiracy by the left and foreign governments to remove him from office and on election day, and posted an inflammatory Facebook video in which he accused pro-Herzog activists of bussing in Israeli-Arab voters.
“The rule of the rightwing is in danger. Arab voters are going to the polls in droves!” Netanyahu warned. “Go to the polling stations! Vote Likud!”
Most Israelis had gone to sleep on Tuesday night with three television exit polls showing the two main parties tied at around 27 seats each in the 120-seat Knesset and expecting weeks of horse trading between the Israeli parties to try and negotiate a government.
But by early on Wednesday morning it was becoming clear that the exit polls had underestimated turnout for Likud, which had mobilised support in recent days.
Elsewhere Israel’s pugnacious rightwing foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, appeared to be one of the biggest losers, only narrowly avoiding falling below the electoral threshold.
Shortly after the exit polls were released, the Likud minister Silvan Shalom said that Netanyahu would invite Bennett, Lieberman, the ultra-Orthodox parties and Kahlon to join a rightwing coalition in the next two days.
“The results were a very clear yes to Prime Minister Netanyahu and Likud to carry on leading. His results were very strong and beyond all the polls taken in the last few weeks. I know very many Israelis came out to vote Likud to keep the national camp and right wing in power and not allow the left wing to take power,” he said.