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TEL AVIV—Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu celebrated “a great victory” for himself and his Likud Party shortly after early exit polls were released following Tuesday’s election.
“Against all odds, a great victory for the Likud, for the nationalist camp led by the Likud, and for the people of Israel,” Netanyahu said in a statement on his Facebook page.
Netanyahu performed much better than expected after facing months-long attacks from his political opponents. His party is now expected to lead the charge in forming a new government.
Zalman Shoval, a former Israeli ambassador to the United States, told reporters there is no doubt Netanyahu’s surge is the story of the election.
“The people in the press and media understand that for Netanyahu personally, and Likud, it’s a big victory,” Shoval said. “Mr. Netanyahu will undoubtedly set up the next government.
State Department Spokeswoman Marie Harf said Tuesday evening that she was not aware of the election results.
“I hadn’t seen them, just heard them from you,” she told CNN. “I think it’s too early to make predictions about what will happen here.”
Harf declined to discuss Netanyahu’s unpredicted surge in early exit polls.
“The Israeli system sometimes takes days or weeks and we will see how this process plays out,” she said. “We will keep working with them, keep having a very close relationship on all the issue we work together on and that will absolutely continue.”
Deputy Minister for Foreign Affairs Tzachi Hanegbi, of the Likud Party, told reporters that his party and Netanyahu have seen “a great, great victory.”
“The people of Israel chose not to surrender to ongoing incitement that took place over so many months,” Hanegbi told reporters, dubbing Netanyahu’s comeback as “unprecedented for many, many years.”
Independent election experts agreed.
Yohanan Plesner, president of the Israeli Democracy Institute, said that the early results show “an impressive comeback for Netanyahu.”
“This outcome renders him a fully legitimate candidate to form the next government,” Plesner said, pushing back against early analysis suggesting that Netanyahu could be out of the running. “But it’s still yet to be decided in the next few days.”
Yehuda Ben Meir, a national security expert at Israel’s Institute for National Security Studies (INSS), said that Israel held true to its history of “surprises” in the election.
“It certainly is a surprise,” he said. “Mr. Netanyahu has withstood the most serious challenge to him continuing as prime minister” and has good chance of heading a new majority coalition.