TEL AVIV, Israel — Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his Likud party won a clear and decisive victory in Israel’s parliamentary elections, paving the way for him to serve a record-breaking fourth term as prime minister, according to an almost complete vote count Wednesday.
Netanyahu and Likud overcame a strong challenge from his main opponent, Labor Party leader Isaac Herzog.
“Against all odds, we achieved a great victory,” Netanyahu told his supporters in a packed hall in Tel Aviv about 1 a.m. Wednesday. “Now we have to form a strong and stable government.”
Israelis expected a possibly long and drawn-out struggle between Netanyahu and his challenger, with both men and their parties claiming the mantle of leadership and trying to form governing coalitions.
Herzog conceded the election in a telephone call to Netanyahu Wednesday morning.
“I wished him luck, but let it be clear: The problems are the same problems, nothing has changed,” Herzog told reporters outside his home.
Herzog and the Arab parties will now likely form the opposition in the next parliament. The Joint List of Arab parties finished with 14 seats, making them the third-largest vote-getters. Herzog promised that the Zionist Union will continue to serve as “an alternative in every area.”
Netanyahu and Likud took 30 seats in the 120-seat parliament, against the 24 forecast for the center-left Zionist Union alliance of Herzog and his running mate, former peace negotiator Tzipi Livni.
Likud’s gains nearly matched the total of 31 seats taken in the 2013 election in an alliance between Netanyahu’s party and a group led by Avigdor Lieberman, who became the country’s foreign minister. In 2013, Likud took 18 seats and Lieberman’s group gained 13.
Netanyahu said he had already begun to call potential coalition partners in Israel’s right and religious wings to discuss forming a new government.
In addition to his Likud party, Netanyahu has begun discussions to bring the following into his coalition: Naftali Bennett and his Jewish Home party, composed of religious nationalists and the pro-settler camp; the populist and former Likudnik Moshe Kahlon; Avigdor Liberman, head of a small secular nationalist party whose base is dominated by Russian-speaking immigrants from the former Soviet Union; and the leaders of two parties that represent Israel’s ultra-Orthodox Jewish population.
The election was closely watched in Washington, where relations are strained between Netanyahu and the White House after Netanyahu gave a speech to Congress two weeks ago opposing the Obama administration’s possible deal with Iran to rein in Tehran’s nuclear program.
White House press secretary Josh Earnest said late Tuesday that President Obama “remains committed to working very closely” with whoever wins the Israeli premiership.
On Monday, Netanyahu announced that he would not support the creation of a Palestinian state as long as he was prime minister, a reversal of his earlier stance supporting a two-state solution to the Israel-Palestinian conflict. The creation of a Palestinian state was the focus of nine months of negotiations last year led by Secretary of State John F. Kerry.
The re-election of the 65-year-old Netanyahu will almost certainly undermine an already bad relationship between Israel and the Palestinian Authority.
The Palestinian leadership has threatened to go to the International Criminal Court at The Hague on April 1 to press war crimes charges against Israeli soldiers and leaders, focusing on the civilian deaths during the 50-day summer war in Gaza and the continued construction of Jewish-only settlements in the occupied West Bank.
“It is clear that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will form the next government, and for that, we say clearly that we will go to the Hague Tribunal, we will accelerate, continue and intensify” diplomatic efforts, top Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat told Agence France-Presse on Wednesday.
Turn-out was the highest since 1999, with almost 72 percent of eligible voters going to the polls. Leaders of the Arab parties suggested that Arab Israeli turn-out reached 65 percent, far higher than in the country’s last national elections in 2013. The number of legislators from Arab parties will go from 11 to 14.
Netanyahu and Likud surged past the last round of pre-election opinion surveys on Friday that showed Likud trailing Herzog’s alliance by three or four seats.
Before the vote, pundits were beginning to write the first drafts of Netanyahu’s political obituary. Reporters asked him in interviews what he planned to do in retirement.
But in the past five days, Netanyahu took to the airwaves, warning repeatedly that Herzog and the left were going to turn over land to the Palestinians and divide Jerusalem, which both Israel and Palestinians claim as their capital.
It was unclear whether Israeli pollsters just got it wrong or could not keep up with fast-moving events. The last opinion polls on Friday suggested that Netanyahu was losing. Exit polls Tuesday night said it was a tie. The final vote count showed that Netanyahu had won by a wide margin.
Leading pollster Avi Degani, president of the Geocartography Knowledge Group, said Wednesday that there were several reasons for the disparity.
“We are not looking for excuses, but in Israel we are always dealing with 20 percent of the voters who have not made a decision before the election and you just do not know who they will vote for,” he said.
Degani also said that many Israeli pollsters had used the internet and not the telephone to carry out their surveys, essentially alienating a large bulk of traditional Likud supporters who are not on the Internet.
He also speculated that the last polls showing Herzog’s party with a growing lead over Netanyahu may have caused panic among hesitant voters, pushing them to vote for Likud at the last minute out of fear that the left wing would win.
Gil Hoffman, a columnist for The Jerusalem Post, said Netanyahu mobilized voters from what he called “the second Israel,” who came out to protect Israel from the left, from Iran and a hostile international community.
“It’s a big victory for the Likud,” said Likud member Danny Danon, a former deputy defense minister. “This is a win for the right, and all my friends on the left need to acknowledge this win.”
Israeli President Reuven Rivlin will now ask party leaders to come to his residence and signal to him whom they want to lead the next coalition government.
The linchpin of a possible Netanyahu-led government now appears to be Moshe Kahlon, a former Likud minister who left that party to form his own, called Kulanu, which won nine or 10 seats, according to exit polls. Kahlon tweeted that it was a “great success.”
Kahlon became popular with voters after he broke up cellphone monopolies and the prices for mobile minutes plummeted. His party’s candidates include Michael Oren, a former Israeli ambassador to the United States, who rebuked Netanyahu for addressing Congress in the polarizing speech on Iran this month.
Before the election, Kahlon refused to say whether he would join a coalition led by Netanyahu or Herzog. But with a strong finish by Netanyahu, most analysts now assume he will side with Netanyahu, because Kahlon’s politics are more closely aligned with Likud than with Labor.
As voting was underway Tuesday, Netanyahu said his government was “in danger,” notably from a turnout of Arab Israeli voters. The alarm from Netanyahu reflected the tight margins in his bid to hold back a surging challenge from Herzog, 54, the son of a former president and grandson of a prominent rabbi.