TEL AVIV— Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud Party appeared to hold a slim lead in Israeli elections on Tuesday evening following the release of early exit polls by Israel’s Channel 2.
Netanyahu declared himself the resounding victor in a statement shortly after exit polls appeared.
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"Against all odds, a great victory for the Likud, for the nationalist camp led by the Likud, and for the people of Israel," he said in a statement on his Facebook page.
The results surprised some election observers and even some in the Likud party, who said that the early results demonstrate Netanyahu’s continuing popularity in a country that has become ever more divided in recent years.
The Israeli leader’s party held on by a narrow edge, garnering 28 seats in the Israeli parliament over his closest challenger, Zionist Union, which had 27 seats, according to early exit polls.
While the race has been called a referendum on Netanyahu himself, early exit polls revealed that the prime minister is still popular among a large percentage of Israelis.
Other early exit polls billed the parties as tied, with Israel’s Channel 1 and Channel 10 putting the count at 27 seats each.
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."
In terms of political coalitions, which form the ideological make-up of the Knesset, the center-left parties appear to have the edge.
"There’s actually a slight tilt towards the center left," Plesner said, estimating that about 57 seats could be to the left-of-center coalitions and about 54 to the right-leaning ones.
The election has been close for weeks, with representatives of all the major political parties using negative rhetoric and making personal attacks.
However, many of those attacks have focused on what critics claim is Likud’s inability to manage soaring prices related to the economy.
A consensus emerged on security issues such as widespread worry about the Obama administration’s diplomacy with Iran and other regional security issues.
Leaders from the center-left to the far-right in Israel have expressed support for Netanyahu’s approach to Iran and his overall stance on key security issues.
Israeli Knesset Speaker Yuli-Yoel Edelstein, a member of Netanyahu’s Likud Party, lambasted the political players for running a negative campaign that focused mainly on ousting Netanyahu instead of the issues.
The final results of the election, he said, may not be known until as late as Friday.
"It was a very unusual campaign," Edelstein told reporters Tuesday evening before early exit polls were released. "This time it was more … only Netanyahu or not Netanyahu."
"I was very disappointed with the fact there was no real discussion of the issues," he said. It was probably one of the lowest campaigns we’ve had."
Hitting back against grassroots campaigns declaring, "Only not Netanyahu" and "Change," Edelstein said, "with all due respect, change is not a political platform."
Netanyahu warned earlier in the day that left-wing and left-of-center political parties were attempting to erode his political base by bussing in Arab voters to the polls.
Likud member Silvan Shalom told reporters, "the results are very, very strong and very much beyond all the polls that were taken in the last few weeks."
"I know there are many Israelis who decided today to vote for Likud in order" to preserve a "right wing [government] in power and not allow the left wing to take power," Shalom said, adding that Netanyahu is already moving to create coalitions and form a government in next few days.
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 said, dubbing Netanyahu’s comeback as "unprecedented for many, many years."
Asked how foreign relations will shape up in the next governing coalition, Hanegbi said everyone will make an effort to "renew the trust" between the United States and Israel.
"We will make the utmost effort" to reach out to the United States, he said.
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 "surprise"s 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.