TEL AVIV, Israel (CBS News/CBSDC/AP) — Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s ruling Likud Party scored a resounding victory in the country’s elections, final results showed Wednesday, in a stunning turnaround after a tight race that had put his lengthy rule in jeopardy. He appeared poised to earn a fourth term in office.
With nearly all the votes counted, Likud appeared to have earned 30 of 120 seats in the Knesset (parliament), putting it in a position to build a coalition government with its right-wing and religious allies with relative ease.
The election was widely seen as a referendum on Netanyahu, who has governed the country for the past six years, and CBS News correspondent Barry Petersen reports it drew an enormous turnout of almost 72 percent.
Recent opinion polls indicated he was in trouble, giving chief rival Isaac Herzog of the center-left Zionist Union a slight lead. Exit polls showed the two sides deadlocked, but once the actual results came pouring in early Wednesday, Likud soared forward. Zionist Union wound up with just 24 seats.
Even before the final results were known, Netanyahu declared victory and pledged to form a new government quickly.
“Against all odds, we achieved a great victory for the Likud,” Netanyahu told supporters at election night headquarters. “I am proud of the people of Israel, who in the moment of truth knew how to distinguish between what is important and what is peripheral, and to insist on what is important.”[tweet https://twitter.com/netanyahu/status/577937082313637888 width=’330′]
Herzog, who appeared poised only days ago to stage a coup, conceded defeat, saying that he called Netanyahu and offered him congratulations. He signaled that he would not join forces with Netanyahu and would rather head to the opposition.
To craft a coalition, Netanyahu will still need the support of Moshe Kahlon, whose upstart Kulanu party captured 10 seats and whose campaign focused almost entirely on bread-and-butter economic issues. He is expected to become the country’s next finance minister.
Petersen reports that, for some people, like Likud supporter Ellie Enyhu, the morning-after was good.
“He will take care of security,” he told Petersen at the stall he runs at a market in Tel Aviv. “He will only go to war when we really need to.”
But many Israelis had hoped for someone new, to jump-start an economy in which prices are high and many feel the chance for a good life — even being able to buy an apartment — is slipping away.
Physical trainer More Grossman told Petersen he wanted change, “to have a better economic situation in Israel, better security… and now we’re faced with the same government.”
Netanyahu’s return to power likely spells trouble for Mideast peace efforts and could further escalate tensions with the United States.
Netanyahu, who already has a testy relationship with President Obama, took a sharp turn to the right in the final days of the campaign, staking out a series of hard-line positions that will put him at odds with the international community.
In a dramatic policy reversal, he said he now opposes the creation of a Palestinian state – a key policy goal of the White House and the international community. He also promised to expand construction in Jewish areas of east Jerusalem, the section of the city claimed by the Palestinians as their capital.
Netanyahu infuriated the White House early this month when he delivered a speech to Congress criticizing an emerging nuclear deal with Iran. The speech was arranged with Republican leaders and wasn’t coordinated with the White House ahead of time.
In Washington, White House spokesman Josh Earnest said Mr. Obama was confident strong U.S.-Israeli ties would endure far beyond the election regardless of the victor.
Netanyahu focused his campaign on security issues, while his opponents instead pledged to address the country’s high cost of living and accused Netanyahu of being out of touch with everyday people.
A fourth-term in office would put Netanyahu on track to become Israel’s longest-serving prime minister, a distinction now held by the Jewish state’s founding father, David Ben-Gurion, Reuters notes.
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