TEL AVIV — After weeks in which polls consistently showed Zionist Union holding a slight lead over the Likud Party of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli leader effected a dramatic comeback to win a decisive victory in Israeli elections.
With 99 percent of precincts reporting, Netanyahu’s Likud had won 30 seats — a quarter of the Knesset and six more than the Zionist Union’s 24.
“Our country’s everyday reality doesn’t give us the luxury for delay,” Netanyahu said in a statement Wednesday. “The citizens of Israel expect that we will act quickly and responsibly to establish a leadership that will work for them in areas of defense, the economy and society just as we promised in this campaign — and just like we will now set ourselves towards doing.”
The Likud victory on Tuesday came after initial exit polls from three Israeli television stations showed the top two parties in a virtual tie. That result would have itself represented a vast improvement for Likud, which had been polling in the 20-23 range as recently as Friday.
But official returns that came in hours later showed Likud emerging as the clear victor. Netanyahu now has a relatively easy path to forming a coalition of his so-called “natural partners” on the right and the religious parties, along with the center-right Kulanu party.
“This was a political near-death experience for [Netanyahu],” said William A. Galston, senior fellow in governance studies at the Brookings Institution. “And it was an entirely unnecessary one.”
Netanyahu’s right-wing and religious bloc will account for 57 seats in the next Knesset, while the center-left will have 49. The Arab-Israeli Joint List won 14 seats to become the third-largest party.
On Tuesday night, Netanyahu spoke with the heads of his likely partners, and results point toward a 67-member coalition of Likud, the pro-settler Jewish Home, haredi Orthodox parties, the hardline Yisrael Beiteinu and Kulanu.
The results provide a conclusive finish to a fierce and largely negative campaign in which both Netanyahu and Herzog campaigned with variations on the slogan It’s Us or Them.
The Joint List, a combined slate of several smaller Arab factions, was one of the election’s biggest winners. Driven by elevated turnout among Arab-Israelis, the Joint List’s 14 seats are a gain of three from its current Knesset representation.
Ayman Odeh, the party’s charismatic leader, has committed himself to working on improving the lives of Arab-Israelis but has vowed not to join a governing coalition.
Throughout the campaign, voters said their top issue was Israel’s high cost of living. They reiterated that demand on Tuesday, giving Kulanu a strong showing with 10 seats. Party founder Moshe Kachlon, a former Likud minister, had focused almost exclusively on socioeconomic issues during the campaign.
“In every Israeli election there is a wunderkind,” said Aaron David Miller, distinguished scholar in the Wilson Center’s Middle East Program. This time, that role belongs to Kachlon, who as Netanyahu’s communications minister won acclaim by breaking up Israel’s cell phone monopoly.
Kulanu may well emerge as the election’s kingmaker. Netanyahu needs its support to form the next government, giving it a powerful bargaining chip when negotiating for positions in ministries and Knesset committees
The other party with a strong economic focus, the centrist Yesh Atid, fell from 19 to 11 seats.
Herzog conceded defeat in a telephone call to Netanyahu on Wednesday.
“We’ll be a fighting, socially-minded party that will serve as an alternative in all areas,” Herzog wrote on Facebook Wednesday morning. “And we will fight together with our partners for the values we believe in.”
As Election Day drew near, leaders on both sides urged voters to close ranks around their respective flagship party. Voters moved away from smaller parties, enabling Likud and Zionist Union to increase their Knesset representation. Likud succeeded in closing a polling deficit of several points in the campaign’s final days.
“Right-wing voters made a tactical decision and voted for Likud,” said Michael Brenner, director of the Center for Israel Studies at American University. “That showed they wanted Likud to be the largest party.”
The religious Zionist Jewish Home party, which grew from three to 12 seats in the 2013 vote, fell back to eight in the election.
On the left, the staunchly leftist Meretz fell from six seats to four, and its chairwoman, Zehava Gal-On, announced her resignation on Wednesday morning. The right-wing Yachad party, founded by former Shas chairman Eli Yishai, did not pass the electoral threshold and will not enter the next Knesset.
Among the biggest losers was Yisrael Beiteinu, which is led by Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman. The party, which had 13 seats in the previous Knesset, was hit with a corruption scandal early in the campaign and wound up with six seats.
–JTA News and Features
Senior Writer David Holzel contributed to this report.
See earlier story: Netanyahu squeaks by