JERUSALEM (CNN) — Benjamin Netanyahu appears poised to keep his job as Israel’s Prime Minister, declaring victory Wednesday following a bitter campaign punctuated by his last-minute appeals to right-wing voters.
For weeks, Netanyahu’s Likud party trailed in opinion polls to the Zionist Union alliance that characterized him as a divisive leader not up to the task of making the lives of ordinary Israelis better.
Yet those polls turned out to be wrong.
Instead, the Likud party grabbed at least 29 of the 120 seats in the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, according to unofficial numbers from the Israeli election committee based on 99% of the vote. Its leaders will have the first chance at forming a coalition government.
The Zionist Union came in second, with at least 24 seats.
“Against all odds, against all odds, we achieved this huge victory for Likud,” Netanyahu told jubilant supporters not long after the polls closed Tuesday. “We achieved the huge victory for our people. And I am proud, I am proud for the people of Israel that in the moment of truth, knew to make the right decision and to choose the real material things over immaterial things.”
Rather than courting voters in the middle, Netanyahu pivoted more to the right with appeals concerning Israel’s security.
Two weeks ago, he made a controversial speech to the U.S. Congress warning of any deal with Iran on its nuclear program. Then, a few days ago, he declared there would be no Palestinian state so long as he’s Prime Minister — reversing an earlier position and putting him at odds again with the Obama administration’s support for a two-state solution.
And on Tuesday, he released a video on Facebook claiming leftists were bringing “huge amounts” of Arabs by bus to vote against Likud. Arabs make up about 20% of Israel’s population.
“The right regime is in danger,” Netanyahu said. “We have an urgent wake-up call. Bring your friends, bring your family, vote for Likud.”
Those appeals appear “to have energized that right-wing base,” according to CNN’s Elise Labott.
Netanyahu still has to form a new government, a process that Israeli President Reuven Rivlin said he hopes will start Sunday. If the Likud leader does so — as expected — it will leave Israel not much different than it was before the election, with a conservative Netanyahu still the dominant force facing a dug-in opposition.
Isaac Herzog, who led the Zionist Union, called Netanyahu to concede defeat. But he and fellow opposition leader Tzipi Livni won’t go away, with Herzog insisting that “nothing has changed.”
“This is not the time for coalitions and governments,” Herzog said, apparently ruling out joining forces with Netanyahu as the Labor Party has done before. “I think what Israel is most in need of is an alternative voice that continues to say the truth.
“And I’m telling everyone, ‘Believe, a change will come.’ ”
Official results will not be released until next week, with the process of building coalitions expected to take much longer.
No party has ever won a majority of seats in the Knesset, meaning coalition governments are as old as the modern state of Israel. The victory goes to the party leader most suited to put together a 61-seat majority.
Aaron David Miller, an ex-adviser to the U.S. government on Arab-Israeli negotiations now with the Wilson Center, predicts former Israeli Communications Minister Moshe Kahlon will be the “kingmaker” in any coalition government deal based on the support his Kulanu party got Tuesday.
So there’s no guarantee Netanyahu will form such a coalition and stay as prime Minister. But he’s got a better chance than anyone, and overnight Tuesday he vowed to work “quickly and responsibly to form a new government.”
“Our country’s everyday reality doesn’t give us the luxury for delay,” Netanyahu said.
If he does lead the next government, he will soon go down in history as the prime minister with the longest continuous tenure in Israel — thanks to his back-to-back-to-back election wins.
Pre-election, exit polls turn out wrong
Many woke up Wednesday questioning all those polls suggesting that Netanyahu’s latest six-year term could be coming to an end.
Israeli media outlets released surveys suggesting that either the Zionist Union would win Tuesday’s vote or, at least, finish in a dead heat with Likud.
Exit polls from Israel’s three major broadcasters showed the two parties neck and neck, not the apparent five-seat advantage that Likud appears to have secured.
So what happened?
Pollster Avi Degani, who predicted a Likud win all along, said other pollsters relied too heavily on Internet technology and should have done more surveying by phone.
“The Internet does not represent the state of Israel and the people of Israel,” Degani said, referring to modern statistical methods. “It represents panels, and the panels are biased strongly to the center.”
As Netanyahu’s win reverberates, one question remains: Did he gain extra seats because of an eleventh-hour surge, or were the major polls skewed from the beginning?
Palestinian official: Campaign based on denying human rights
Netanyahu maintained hard-line positions on settlements and negotiations with Palestinians, but his opposition appeared more open to talks and more focused on economic, social and other issues within Israel.
Saeb Erakat, the Palestinian chief negotiator with Israel, said, “The results of the Israeli elections show the success of a campaign platform based on settlements, racism, apartheid and the denial of fundamental human rights of the Palestinian people.
“Such a result would not have been possible had the international community held Israel to account for its systematic violations of international law,” said Erakat, who works under Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.
The post-election view from Hamas, the Islamist political and militant movement that controls Gaza and is considered a terrorist organization by the United States and European Union, appeared more resigned.
“Hamas doesn’t see any difference between the Israeli parties because they all share the denial of our people’s rights and keeps assaulting them (people),” said Sami Abu Zuhri, a Hamas spokesman, suggesting that it didn’t matter much who prevailed Tuesday.
“We assure that the Palestinian resistance is strong and can impose the facts.”
Miller, the Wilson Center scholar, says he doesn’t think that Netanyahu will necessarily hold his hard campaign line on the Palestinians forming their own state if and when he starts his next term. But that doesn’t mean an elusive peace deal is coming anytime soon.
“I think the two-state solution, sadly, is in a Bermuda Triangle, sandwiched between a situation that’s too hard for it to be implemented and too important for all of the parties — including the Prime Minister, despite what he said,” Miller said.