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Herzog concedes defeat, congratulates Netanyahu

Netanyahu says he hopes to form next Israeli government within 'two to three weeks'
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu delivers a speech next to his wife Sara late Tuesday night (AFP)

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu hopes to form a new government within weeks after defying the polls to seal a clear election win, his rightwing Likud party said on Wednesday.

"The prime minister intends to begin forming the government immediately in order to finish the task within two to three weeks," a party statement said.

Netanyahu, who swept to victory in a last minute dash for votes by promising there would be no Palestinian state and warning about the threat posed to Israel by its Palestinian voters, faces the task of building the next government.

Netanyahu's tactics, observers have noted, gutted the nationalist right, but he will have deepened Israel's diplomatic isolation and earned the opprobrium of America and the international community in doing so. 

His success, say analysts, clearly came at the expense of Naftali Bennett and the Jewish Home party, previously the third largest party in the Knesset. The hit to Bennett will make Netanyahu's task of forming a right-wing government much more difficult, said Israeli journalist and MEE contributor Meron Rapoport.

“Netanyahu himself cannot be too happy with the results. His late resurrection from political annihilation came at the expense of his old time political allies, the Jewish Home of Naftali Bennett,” Rapoport said.

“Another Netanyahu ally, Yisrael Beiteinu of Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, slipped from 12 seats to five. He is completely dependent on Moshe Kahlon, an ex-Likud minister who resigned because of his uneasy relations with Netanyahu.”

“It will certainly not be easy to reach an understanding with him,” he added.

Netanyahu spoke overnight with Lieberman and leaders of the other smaller parties, including two ultra-Orthodox parties, Shas and United Torah, which he sees as likely coalition partners, his party's statement said.

None of those calls, points out Israeli journalist and MEE contributor Dimi Reider, were made to the Zionist Union or Yair Lapid's Yesh Atid party.

"This will be our most right-wing government yet," Reider posted Wednesday morning on Facebook.

With nearly all the votes counted, Likud won 23.26 percent of the vote to 18.73 percent for its centre-left rival, Zionist Union, giving them 30 and 24 seats respectively.

The Joint List, which groups the main Palestinian parties, followed with 10.98 percent, which equates to 14 seats, meaning they will be the third largest force in the 120-seat Knesset, or parliament.

Jewish Home won eight seats, Yisrael Beitenu six, Shas seven and UTJ six, meaning that, with Likud, the right-wing-religious bloc looks to have secured 57 seats.

Netanyahu had put security at the forefront of his campaign, arguing he is the only one capable of protecting Israel from an Iranian nuclear threat and vowing never to allow the Palestinians to establish a capital in east Jerusalem.

Responding to early elections results, Palestinian leaders vowed to step up their diplomatic campaign for statehood.

"It is clear that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will form the next government, so we say clearly that we will go to the International Criminal Court in the Hague and we will speed up, pursue and intensify" all diplomatic efforts, chief negotiator Saeb Erakat told AFP. 

Netanyahu drew criticism on Tuesday when he posted a video on his Facebook page, warning that "Arab voters are coming out in droves to the polls".

"Left-wing organisations are bussing them out . . . we have only you. Get out to vote, bring your friends and family, vote Likud," he urged. 

In an opinion piece in Israeli daily Haaretz on Wednesday morning, columnist Chemi Shalev said the Facebook post may have been the deciding factor in Netanyahu's victory.

"Netanyahu’s message of fear and loathing may have indeed been the prod that shook right-wing voters out of their complacency and brought them to the polling booths 'in droves'," wrote Shalev.

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