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Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will regain his position after his Likud-Beytenu party alliance won 31 Knesset mandates, followed by Yesh Atid at 19 the Central Elections Commission confirmed Wednesday.
“I wish to thank the millions of the citizens of Israel carried out their democratic right today. According to the exit polls it is clear that the citizens of Israel have decided that they want me to continue in the position of prime minister of Israel and that I form as wide a coalition government as possible. The early results are a big opportunity for many changes that will favor all of Israel's citizens. The elections are behind us and many complex challenges lie ahead. Starting tonight I will start the efforts to form a government that will be as wide as possible," Netanyahu wrote.
At 6 a.m. Wednesday Israeli time the Central Elections Committee released its final results after counting 3,616,947 votes. While the final results could change the overall picture by one or two seats, the joint Likud-Yisrael Beytenu list headed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu leads with 31 seats, followed by the surprise of these elections, the Yesh Atid party led by Yair Lapid, with 19 seats. Labor, led by Shelly Yachimovich, came in third with 15 seats — a number considered a great disappointment for the social democratic party. The ultra-Orthodox Shas party received 11, and Habayit Hayehudi, led by Naftali Bennett, garnered 11 too. The Ashkenazi haredi party United Torah Judaism received 7 seats, followed by Hatnuah, led by former Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, with 6 seats. Left-wing Meretz, under Zahava Gal-On, doubled its electoral strength to win 6 seats. Arab-Israeli voter turnout was low, once again, with Ra'am-Ta'al leading the pack with 5 seats; Hadash received 4, and the National Democratic Assembly received 3. Kadima, which was the largest party in the 2009 elections with 28 seats, crashed to 2 seats, and may still not pass the electoral threshold once all the votes are tallied. Far-right Strong Israel did not pass the threshold.
Speaking to party supporters after midnight, Netanyahu said the election results provided an opportunity to carry out reforms that the citizens of Israel were demanding and that would serve the entire country. Netanyahu said his government would be based on five central pillars: "Strengthening Israel's security in the face of the challenges ahead and especially Iran; fiscal responsibility in the global economic downturn; diplomatic responsibility in our constant striving for a true peace; increasing equality in the national burden, and a reduction in the cost of living with a special emphasis on the price of housing."
Netanyahu said he would start immediately to form "as wide a coalition as possible" and had already called Lapid, Bennett and Shas. In his speech, former foreign minister and No. 2 on the Likud-Beytenu list Avigdor Lieberman said the campaign's two main goals had been achieved: to secure the continuation of the nationalist camp’s leadership of Israel, and to make sure that Netanyahu returned for another term.
Likud MK Tzahi Hanegbi said the country had given the Likud, under Netanyahu, a renewed mandate to lead the nation. Hanegbi added that there had been a significant change in the electoral map. Education Minister Gideon Sa'ar from the Likud said that Netanyahu would once again be prime minister, and that he would want to govern with as wide a coalition as possible. "The nationalist camp has won the election. Benjamin Netanyahu will be the next prime minister of Israel. He will lead the country in the coming years too. There will still be attempts by people on the left to block Netanyahu from forming a government. But we will now work to build a government headed by Benjamin Netanyahu," Sa'ar, who is the Likud's campaign chairman, said after the exit polls were announced.
Voter turnout was especially high as Israelis took full advantage of sunny and warm weather, as well as a public holiday, to exercise their democratic rights. According to the Central Elections Commission, some seventy percent of eligible Israeli voters cast their ballots, the highest voter turnout since the elections of 1999.
Yesh Atid, a new center-left party led by former television journalist Yair Lapid, was the surprise of the elections, garnering 19 mandates. In the run-up to the elections, Lapid would not commit to not join a Netanyahu government, as Labor leader Shelly Yechimovich had done.
Likud-Beytenu's poor performance seemed to be a result of a migration of voters to Bennett's Habayit Hayehudi, as well as a general sense amongst traditional Likud voters that since Netanyahu was polled to win anyway, they could vote for other parties. As separate parties, Likud and Yisrael Beytenu had 42 Knesset seats between them. The exit poll results show a ten seat drop.
Just several hours before polls closed at 10 p.m. Tuesday Netanyahu pleaded with followers of his Facebook page to go out and vote. "The Likud's rule is in danger. I implore you to drop everything you are doing now and go vote for the Likud. It is very important for the future wellbeing of Israel," Netanyahu wrote on his Facebook page.
Netanyahu's message was a sign that the Likud was worried about the high voter turnout in areas associated with center and left wing voters. Earlier in the day, Likud officials sent out messages to their voter base to go out and vote. Education Minister and Likud-Beytenu campaign manager Gideon Sa'ar said he "was worried about the high voter turnout amongst left-wing voters."
More than 9,000 polling booths opened at 7 a.m. Tuesday in more than 1,100 different cities and towns across Israel. Netanyahu arrived at the Paula Ben-Gurion Elementary School in Jerusalem shortly after voting began Tuesday accompanied by his family.
"I have always said the Likud-Beytenu [the joint Likud and Yisrael Beytenu Knesset candidate list] represents the entire nation, and in this case, the whole family," he said in a press conference at the school.
Habayit Heyehudi leader Naftali Bennett voted in his hometown of Raanana. "When I see everyone joining Habayit Hayehudi I know that something new is about to begin among the Jewish people,” he told reporters. "It feels rather strange to vote for yourself; but it is exciting and joyful,” said Yair Lapid, who heads Yesh Atid (There is a Future), after voting in an elementary school in northern Tel Aviv.
The spiritual leader of the Sephardi ultra-Orthodox party Shas, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, arrived at the polling station Tuesday. After voting Yosef issued a blessing to Shas supporters, saying, "those who like God, may he be blessed, will rise and reach the skies." President Shimon Peres, who voted in Jerusalem Tuesday morning, said “Israelis were given a day off (for voting), and it represents an opportunity that encapsulates liberty — the right to vote in a free, democratic and beautiful country.”
Officials at the President's Residence took pains to note that Peres will deal with coalition talks and task a candidate with the job of forming a coalition only after the Central Elections Committee certifies the final results, eight days after the election. In accordance with Israeli law, the president will invite party representatives next week to have them make their case on who should be prime minister. He will then have to select the MK who has the best chance of forging an alliance that comprises a majority of Knesset members. The would-be premier would then have several weeks to negotiate the terms of his coalition and swear in his government. The conventional wisdom is that Netanyahu will get the nod from the president, owing to the overall strength of the Right and the religious parties' tendency to favor more hardline governments.