(Update: Election returns early Wednesday significantly widened the lead of Netanyahu's Likud over its main rival: With 99 percent of ballots counted the Likud was ahead 29-24.)
(CNSNews.com) – Any hopes by his detractors that Israeli voters would give Binyamin Netanyahu marching orders after nine years at the helm looked set to be dashed on Tuesday night, as exit polls pointed to the strong likelihood that he will serve a fourth term as prime minister, possibly as head of a national unity government.
Confounding earlier opinion polls that showed a slim lead for the center-left “Zionist Union” bloc led by Labor leader Isaac Herzog, exit polls by Israel’s major television networks put the two neck-and-neck – 27 seats each – and in one case gave the Likud a one-seat advantage, 28-27.
A major party needs to form a coalition of more than 60 seats in the 120-member Knesset to govern, and pundits and party officials rushed to analyze the exit poll figures for a range of minor parties, mulling the various coalition-building options open to Netanyahu and Herzog.
Israeli media quoted a source close to President Reuven Rivlin, whose role is largely ceremonial but includes assenting to the early dissolution of parliament, as saying he interprets the interim results as indicating that Netanyahu would have the ability to form a coalition quickly, and that he, Rivlin, would favor a strong national unity government.
The incumbent was confident he would be successful.
“Against all odds, a great victory for Likud, a great victory for the nationalist camp headed by Likud, a great victory for the nation of Israel,” Netanyahu said in a post on his Facebook page.
The Zionist Union said that the “spin and statements” were premature, indicating work was underway to cobble together a coalition led by Herzog.
Refusing to concede defeat, Herzog told supporters in Tel Aviv he would make every effort to build such a coalition.
Coalition-building options for Netanyahu could include drawing in Naftali Bennett’s religious nationalist party Jewish Home, the ultra-Orthodox Shas and United Torah Judaism parties, Avigdor Liberman’s secularist Yisrael Beytenu, and a new party focusing on social and economic issues, Kulanu.
Together, those five potential partners garnered around 36 seats in exit polls, so if the figures were borne out in final results they would edge Netanyahu over the 61-seat threshold.
But if one or more of them balk – or if Netanyahu deems their prerequisites for joining to be too great – that would make a national unity deal with Herzog a more likely outcome.
Herzog’s routes to a workable coalition could include the secular centrist Yesh Atid party, Kulanu, and either the leftist Meretz or the ultra-Orthodox parties.
A combined bloc of three Arab-leftist parties looks to have done well, achieving 13 seats in exit polls, but so far it has ruled out joining a coalition led by Netanyahu or Herzog.
Turnout was high – just under 72 percent, compared to 67 percent in 2013, 65 percent in 2009 and 63 percent in 2006 general elections, Ha’aretz reported.
Netanyahu served as prime minister from 1996-1999, then returned in 2009 – two months after President Obama’s inauguration – since when he has served two further terms.
The Netanyahu and Obama administrations have clashed over the years, their differences centered on peace negotiations with the Palestinians and – most dramatically in recent months – nuclear talks with Iran.
The New York Times quoted White House press secretary Josh Earnest as saying that Obama “remains committed to working very closely with the winner of the ongoing elections to cement and further deepen the strong relationship between the United States and Israel, and the president is confident that he can do that with whomever the Israeli people choose.”