Netanyahu cements Israeli election victory

In a four-day pre-election blitz, Netanyahu made a series of promises designed to shore up his Likud base and draw voters

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Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu won a come-from-behind victory in Israel's election on Wednesday after tacking hard to the right in the final days of campaigning, including abandoning a commitment to negotiate a Palestinian state.

In a four-day pre-election blitz, Netanyahu made a series of promises designed to shore up his Likud base and draw voters from other right-wing and nationalist parties, including a pledge to go on building settlements on occupied land and saying that there would be no Palestinian state if he is re-elected.

With 99.5 percent of votes counted, Likud had won 30 seats in the 120-member Knesset, comfortably defeating the Zionist Union opposition on 24 seats, Israeli media said.

Netanyahu had earlier claimed victory in elections Tuesday and the initial results seemed to ensure him a third straight term, likely to further strain relations with the Palestinians.

Difficult coalition talks still lie ahead, in a politically divided country where no one party has ever won an outright majority in parliament.

Isaac Herzog, Netanyahu’s chief opponent and head of the center-left Zionist Union, said “everything is still open” and that he already had spoken to party leaders about forming a government.

But after days in which Zionist Union appeared poised to defeat Netanyahu's Likud, the exit polls late on Tuesday put the two parties in a dead heat. Netanyahu sought to seize the momentum, taking to Twitter to portray the photo finish as a triumph that defied earlier predictions.

Political commentators said Netanyahu seemed to have the easier path to forming a cabinet, with the support of traditional rightist allies - which would put him on course to becoming Israel’s longest serving leader. But he would also need the backing of kingmaking centrists, who were non-committal on their future moves after the polls closed.

Netanyahu 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.

Netanyahu has focused on Iran’s nuclear program and militant Islam. But many Israelis had said they were tiring of the message, and the center-left campaigned on social and economic issues, surging in polls before election day.

(With AFP and Reuters)

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