Netanyahu Victory In Israel Election
JERUSALEM, March 17 (Reuters) – Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu claimed victory in Israel’s election on Tuesday after exit polls showed he had erased his center-left rivals’ lead with a hard rightward shift that saw him disavow a commitment to negotiate a Palestinian state.
But after days in which Zionist Union appeared poised to defeat Netanyahu’s Likud, the exit polls put the two parties in a dead heat. Netanyahu could have the easier path to forming a cabinet, which would put him on course to become Israel’s longest serving leader.
He 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, at least as long as President Barack Obama remains in office.
Netanyahu has focused on the threat from Iran’s nuclear program and militant Islam. But many Israelis had said they were tiring of the message, and the center-left had campaigned on social and economic issues, surging in polls as election day neared.
“Against all odds: a great victory for Likud, a great victory for the national camp led by Likud, a great victory for the people of Israel,” Netanyahu wrote on his official Twitter account.
A new centrist party led by former communications minister Moshe Kahlon could be the kingmaker in coalition talks. After the balloting ended, he said did not rule out a partnership with either Likud or Zionist Union.
The 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.
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.
Ramping up his bid for right-wing votes, Netanyahu on election day accused left-wing groups of trying to remove him from power by busing Arab Israeli voters to polling stations, a statement that drew a sharp rebuke from Washington.
The Obama administration has been angry at Netanyahu since he addressed the U.S. Congress two weeks ago at the invitation of Republican lawmakers, to oppose ongoing U.S. nuclear negotiations with Iran.
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.