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Netanyahu claims surprise victory in Israeli election

AFP

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's right-wing Likud party swept past its main rival, the centre-left Zionist Union, after nearly all votes were counted in Israel's election on Wednesday.

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Netanyahu claimed victory after exit polls showed he had erased his centre-left rivals’ lead with a hard rightward shift in which he abandoned a commitment to negotiate a Palestinian state.

Israeli media described the showing as a "huge win" for Netanyahu, with the formation of a government still dependent on coalition negotiations among the country's diverse political parties.

Likud is set to win 30 seats compared with 24 for Isaac Herzog's Zionist Union in the 120-member parliament, a gap wider than the one projected in exit polls and likely to ease Netanyahu's way towards building a governing coalition.

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

“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 right-wing parties and urged them to form a “strong and stable” government with him without delay.

'WHITE HOUSE TRYING TO PLAY THINGS DOWN'

"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."

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

Herzog told reporters on Wednesday he had spoken with Netanyahu on the telephone to congratulate him on his victory. He said his Zionist Union party would continue to be an alternative to Netanyahu’s right-wing camp.

"This is not an easy morning for us and for those who believe in our way,” Herzog and running mate, Tzipi Livni, said in a joint statement minutes earlier. “We will lead the fight, together with our partners in Knesset, for the values we believe in. We will fight on behalf of the citizens of Israel for social justice, diplomatic horizon, equality and democracy in hope that we can maintain a just, safe Jewish and democratic state.”

Netanyahu has focused on the threat from Iran’s nuclear programme and Islamist militants in the region. But many Israelis had said they were tiring of the message, and the centre-left campaigned on social and economic issues, surging in polls as election day neared.

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 Herzog, who won over voters with flashes of wit after enduring being lampooned for his short stature and reedy voice.

Coalition race

A new centrist party led by former communications minister Moshe Kahlon could be the kingmaker in coalition talks. After the balloting ended, he said he did not rule out a partnership with either Likud or Zionist Union.

Exit polls gave right-wing and religious parties – Netanyahu’s traditional partners – about 54 seats, and left-leaning factions, 43 – both figures still short of a governing majority in the 120 seat parliament.

Turnout was around 72 percent, higher than the last election in 2013.

No party has ever won an outright majority in Israel’s 67-year history, and it may be weeks before the country has a new government. Netanyahu will remain prime minister until a new administration is sworn in.

Naftali Bennett, leader of the ultranationalist Jewish Home party, said he had spoken with Netanyahu within minutes of the exit polls and agreed to open “accelerated” coalition talks with him.

“The nationalist camp won,” Bennett, who advocates annexing parts of the occupied West Bank, told supporters.

Rightward shift

After the final results are in, and following consultations with political 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.

Rivlin has called for national unity, signalling he favours a government that would pair both Likud and Zionist Union.

Ramping up his bid for right-wing votes, Netanyahu on election day accused left-wing groups of trying to remove him from power by bussing Arab Israeli voters to polling stations, a statement that drew a sharp rebuke from Washington.

“We’re always concerned, broadly speaking, about any statements that may be aimed at marginalising certain communities,” State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said. Some political rivals accused Netanyahu of racism over the remarks.

The Obama administration has been angry at Netanyahu since he addressed the US Congress two weeks ago at the invitation of Republican lawmakers, officially to oppose ongoing US nuclear negotiations with Iran, although many saw the controversial intervention as a campaign stunt.

In the last days of campaigning as he sought to persuade supporters of smaller right-wing parties to “come home” to Likud, Netanyahu promised more building of Jewish settlements and 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.

When Netanyahu called the election in December, two years early, he looked set for an easy victory. But in the final weeks there had been a sense that change was in the air. Many voters spoke of Netanyahu fatigue.

Saeb Erekat, chief Palestinian negotiator in peace talks with Israel that collapsed in April, told Reuters: “It seems to me that Mr. Netanyahu will form the next government in Israel and we all heard what he said yesterday ... Mr. Netanyahu has done nothing in his political life but to destroy the two-state solution.”

Speaking to AFP, Erekat said the Palestinians would "go to the International Criminal Court in the Hague and speed up, pursue and intensify" diplomatic efforts.

(FRANCE 24 with REUTERS, AFP)

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