Benjamin Netanyahu has won a fourth term as Israel’s prime minister after his right-wing Likud Party has won a surprise victory in the country’s general elections.
Exit polls had forecast a dead heat but with almost all votes counted, results give Likud a clear lead over its main rival, the centre-left Zionist Union.
The outcome gives PM Benjamin 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.
The latest tally gives Likud 30 seats in the 120-seat parliament, the Knesset, with Zionist Union on 24 seats.
In a speech to jubilant supporters in Tel Aviv after Tuesday’s polls closed, Benjamin 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.
Benjamin Netanyahu “plans to immediately begin forming a government in order to complete the task within two to three weeks,” a statement from Likud said.
It said he had already spoken to parties he saw as possible coalition partners, including right-wing and ultra-Orthodox parties and centrist Kulanu, which won 10 seats.
Zionist Union leader Yitzhak Herzog called Benjamin Netanyahu early on March 18 to congratulate him on the result and wished him “good luck”.
“Nothing has changed, we will keep fighting for a just society,” Yitzhak Herzog was quoted as saying by Israeli newspaper Haaretz.
“This is not an easy morning for us and for those who believe in our way,” Yitzhak Herzog and Zionist Union co-leader Tzipi Livni said in a statement.
Benjamin Netanyahu had vowed not to allow the creation of a Palestinian state, while Zionist Union expressed support for a two-state solution and promised to repair relations with Palestinians and the international community.
In the wake of the vote, chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said Palestinians would step up their bid 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 diplomatic efforts,” he told AFP news agency.
Almost 72% of those eligible voted in Tuesday’s election. Turnout was four points higher than the previous election in 2013.
Israel’s form of proportional representation always produces smaller parties and coalition government. None has ever won an outright majority under Israel’s proportional representation voting system.
The Joint Arab List, an alliance of Israeli Arab-dominated parties that united for the first time, came third with 14 seats.
Nearly six million Israelis are expected to polls to vote for a new parliament on March 17.
The new elections are expected to be a close contest between PM Benjamin Netanyahu’s party and a centre-left alliance.
The centre-left Zionist Union promises to repair relations with Palestinians and the international community.
Benjamin Netanyahu, whose party has trailed in opinion polls, vowed on March 16 not to allow the creation of a Palestinian state if he wins a fourth term.
The economy and living standards have emerged as key issues.
Polls opened at 07:00 and are due to close at 22:00 local time.
Results could be declared soon afterwards, but a lengthy period of negotiations over the formation of the next coalition government may follow.
No party has ever won an outright majority under Israel’s proportional representation voting system, and neither side is expected to get more than a quarter of the votes in Tuesday’s election.
Votes are cast for a party, rather than individual candidates. There are 120 seats up for grabs though electoral system means no single party will achieve a majority.
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Blocs of parties must command at least 61 seats to form a government and the president has seven days in which to appoint a member of parliament with best chance of forming a government. The candidate has initial 28 days to put workable coalition together.
Opinion polls published before the weekend suggested that the centre-left Zionist Union is likely to win the most seats.
It might still be possible for Benjamin Netanyahu to form a coalition government even if his Likud party fails to top the poll.
As Benjamin Netanyahu cast his vote on Tuesday, he ruled out forming a coalition with the Zionist Union: “There will not be a unity government with Labor. I will form a nationalist (rightwing) government.”
Zionist Union party co-leader Yitzhak Herzog said his rival represented the “path of despair and disappointment”.
“Whoever wants change, hope, and really a better future for Israel, will vote the Zionist Camp,” he said.
International issues, from Israel’s relationship with the United States to concerns over Iran’s nuclear program, have been one focus of the campaign.
Many of the candidates have concentrated on Israel’s socio-economic problems, including the high cost of living and slow economic growth.
The future of the city of Jerusalem has also been a central election issue.
Benjamin Netanyahu has consistently accused his centre-left challengers of being willing to relinquish Israel’s claim to Jerusalem as its indivisible capital in peace talks with the Palestinians.
On March 16, Benjamin Netanyahu spoke at the Har Homa Jewish settlement in East Jerusalem and said he was the only person who could ensure the city’s security.
He said no Palestinian state would be formed were he to remain prime minister.
Palestinians seek East Jerusalem – occupied by Israel since the 1967 Middle East war – as the capital of a future Palestinian state.
Yitzhak Herzog has accused Benjamin Netanyahu of “panicking”.
Visiting the Western Wall, one of the holiest sites in Judaism, on Sunday, Yitzhak Herzog pledged to “safeguard Jerusalem and its residents in actions, not just words, more than any other leader”.