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Wed 18 Mar 2015 12:20 PM

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Netanyahu claims victory in Israel election after hard right shift

Prime minister says his Likud party won 'great victory'

Netanyahu claims victory in Israel election after hard right shift
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu claimed victory in Israels election. (Getty Images)

Prime Minister
Benjamin Netanyahu claimed victory in Israel's election 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.

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 centre-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.

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.

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 programme and militant Islam. But many Israelis had
said they were tiring of the message, and the centre-left campaigned on social
and economic issues, surging in polls before election day.

An exit poll
for Channel 2 TV gave Likud 28 seats and Zionist Union 27 in the 120-member
parliament. Channel 10, revising its survey several hours after voting ended,
put that margin at 27 seats for Likud to 26 for Zionist Union. Channel 1 had
both parties tied at 27.

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.

"He's a
magician, he's a magician," the crowd chanted.

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.

An initial
count gave Likud a 32-24 seat lead over Zionist Union but that was based on
votes from 57 percent of the polling stations. Final results were not expected
until later on Wednesday.

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

The exit polls
gave right-wing and religious parties about 54 seats, and left-leaning
factions, 43 - both figures still short of a governing majority. It may be
weeks before the country has a new government, and until then, Netanyahu will
remain prime minister.

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

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 - a partnership Netanyahu rejected during the

Bennett, leader of the ultranationalist Jewish Home party, said he had spoken
with Netanyahu and agreed to open "accelerated" coalition talks with

But Zionist
Union could find a lifeline from Kulanu and from Arab parties that united for
the first time in a joint list of parliamentary candidates and came in third in
the exit polls.

While they are
unlikely to join a government, the Arab parties could give a centre-left
coalition tacit support and create a block against Netanyahu.

If the
centre-left is to assemble a government, it will also need the support of
ultra-Orthodox parties, which the polls said would win 13-14 seats.

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.

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, to oppose ongoing US
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. Cautioning that yielding territory would open the way for
attacks against Israel by Islamic militants, Netanyahu 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.

Saeb Erekat,
chief Palestinian negotiator in peace talks with Israel that collapsed in
April, told Reuters it appeared Netanyahu would form the next government.

Citing the
Israeli leader's rejection of a Palestinian state, Erekat said: "Mr.
Netanyahu has done nothing in his political life but to destroy the two-state

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