A nearly complete ballot count early Wednesday morning showed Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party scored a decisive victory over its main left-wing rival in Israel's parliamentary elections.
“Against all odds, we achieved a great victory for the Likud … and a major victory for the people of Israel,” Netanyahu told his supporters at the Likud election night headquarters.
“I’m proud of the people of Israel that in the moment of truth knew how to distinguish between the important and the trivial,” the prime minister said.
With 99 percent of the votes counted, Netanyahu’s Likud was expected to win 29 seats in the Knesset, compared with 24 for the Zionist Union, a merger between the Labor and Hatnua parties.
Zionist Union head Isaac Herzog called Netanyahu Wednesday morning to congratulate him.
“I wished him luck, but let it be clear to all citizens, the challenges are the same challenges, the problems are the same problems, nothing has changed,” Herzog told reporters outside his home.
Herzog promised the Zionist Union would continue to comprise “an alternative [to Likud] in every area.”
Netanyahu’s first stop after securing the majority of Knesset seats according to the official vote count was to the Western Wall in Jerusalem.
“I deeply value the decision by Israeli civilians to choose me and my colleagues against all the odds and against major forces,” Netanyahu said, according to the Times of Israel.
The prime minister seemed to be referring to what he had described during the campaign as foreign government-funded groups meddling in the election process in favor of his left-wing rivals.
Netanyahu said he “feels honored by the responsibility" granted him by the Israeli people.
One of the first congratulatory messages from a foreign leader came from British Prime Minister David Cameron, who tweeted, “PM: Congratulations to Netanyahu on election result. As one of Israel’s firmest friends, UK looks forward to working with new government.”
Nabil Abu Rdainah, a spokesman for Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, suggested what was important was not the winner, only that the prime minister recognize a Palestinian state.
"We are not bothered by who is head of government in Israel, what we want from the Israeli government is to recognize the two-state solution and that east Jerusalem be the capital of the state of Palestine," the spokesman said.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu prays at the tunnel section of the Western Wall in Jerusalem Wednesday, March 18, 2015. (AP Photo/Emeil Salman)
Chief Palestinian peace negotiator Saeb Erekat took a harder line on the election outcome, telling Voice of Palestine radio: "It is clear Israel has voted for burying the peace process, against the two-state choice and for the continuation of occupation and settlement."
In the final days of his campaign in an apparent effort to lure right-wing voters, Netanyahu vowed he would cede no more land to the Palestinians.
A Palestine Liberation Organization leader told Reuters that Palestinians would move ahead with filing criminal charges against Israel at the International Criminal Court.
Exit polls released earlier by the major Israeli news organizations showed Netanyahu in an extremely tight race with the Zionist Union, but even by Tuesday night, Netanyahu appeared in the better position to form a coalition government.
Under Israeli election rules, the head of the largest bloc of parties, in this case most likely Netanyahu, must recruit smaller parties for a total of 61 members of parliament to support him as prime minister. Based on the overall results, Netanyahu appears able to handily succeed in the task.
Another surprise of the elections was the showing of the Joint List, a merger of smaller parties representing mostly Israel’s Arab sector. With 14 seats in the Knesset, the party representing communists, Islamists and Palestinian nationalists was set to be the third largest party in the 120-seat Knesset, a first for Israel’s Arab minority.
This story has been updated.