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Netanyahu slightly ahead in election, but Israel remains divided

TEL AVIV, Israel – After a bruising campaign focused on his failings, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel seemed to emerge from Tuesday’s elections in the best position to form a new government, though he offended many voters and alienated allies in the process.

While the results were still incomplete, exit polls and partial returns suggested that Netanyahu’s Likud Party was likely to claim 27 or 28 of the 120 seats in Parliament, and his chief rival, the center-left Zionist Union alliance, to take 26 or 27.

Netanyahu and his allies seized on the early numbers to create an aura of inevitability, celebrating with singing and dancing. While his opponents vowed a fight, Israeli political analysts agreed that he had the advantage, with more votes having gone to the right-leaning parties likely to support him.

It was a turnabout from the last pre-election polls published Friday, which showed the Zionist Union, led by Isaac Herzog, with a four- or five-seat lead and building momentum. To bridge the gap, Netanyahu embarked on a last-minute scorched-earth campaign, promising that no Palestinian state would be established as long as he remained in office and insulting Arab citizens.

Netanyahu, who served as prime minister for three years in the 1990s and returned to office in 2009, exulted in what he called “a huge victory” and said he had spoken to the heads of all the parties “in the national camp” and urged them to help him form a government “without any further ado.”

“I am proud of the Israeli people, that in the moment of truth knew how to separate between what’s important or what’s not and to stand up for what’s important,” he told an exuberant crowd early Wednesday morning at Likud’s election party at the Tel Aviv Fairgrounds. “For the most important thing for all of us, which is real security, social economy and strong leadership.”

But it remained to be seen how his divisive – some said racist – campaign tactics would affect his ability to govern a fractured Israel.

Herzog also celebrated what he called “an incredible achievement,” noting that his Labor Party had not won as many seats since 1992. He said he had formed a negotiating team in hopes of forming “a real social government in Israel” that “aspires to peace with our neighbors.”

“The public wants a change,” he said at an election-night party in Tel Aviv. “We will do everything in our power - given the reality to reach this. In any case, I can tell you that there will be no decisions tonight.”

If the exit polls hold up, Netanyahu may be able to form a narrow coalition of nationalist and religious parties free of the ideological divisions that stymied his last government. That was what he intended when he called early elections in December. But such a coalition, with a slim parliamentary majority, might not last long.

In the coming days, President Reuven Rivlin will poll party leaders to see whom they prefer as prime minister and then charge Netanyahu or Herzog with trying to stitch together a coalition, though Rivlin said Tuesday night that he would suggest they join forces instead.

“I am convinced that only a unity government can prevent the rapid disintegration of Israel’s democracy and new elections in the near future,” he told the Israeli newspaper Haaretz.

Both camps rejected that option publicly, saying the gaps between their world views was too large. Netanyahu and Herzog started working the phones immediately after the polls closed, calling party heads to begin the horse-trading and deal-making in hopes of lining up a majority of lawmakers behind them.

The biggest prize may be Moshe Kahlon, a popular former Likud minister who broke away – in part out of frustration with Netanyahu – to form Kulanu, which focused on pocketbook issues. Kahlon leans to the right but has issues with the prime minister, and said Tuesday night that he would not reveal his recommendation until the final results were tallied.

Kulanu – Hebrew for “All of Us” – is likely to win nine or 10 seats, according to the exit polls, enough to put either side’s basic ideological alliance over the magic number of 61 if they also win the backing of two ultra-Orthodox parties, which appear to have a total of 14.

The murky results led to a murky reaction from the White House, where a spokesman said that President 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.”

That conciliatory public stand contrasts sharply with the private frustrations in the West Wing, where Obama and aides were angry about Netanyahu’s decision to accept a Republican invitation to deliver a speech about Iran’s nuclear program to Congress without discussing it with U.S. officials. ►That diplomatic spat deepened a rift between Netanyahu and Obama that has developed over years, especially about the issue of Netanyahu’s pursuit of settlement construction. The Israeli leader’s admission in the last days of the campaign that he would never allow the establishment of a Palestinian state could become another irritant.

Tuesday’s balloting came just 26 months after Israel’s last election, but the dynamic was entirely different. In 2013, there was no serious challenge to Netanyahu. That changed this time, when Herzog teamed up with Tzipi Livni to form the Zionist Union, an effort to reclaim the state’s founding pioneer philosophy from a right-wing that increasingly defined it in opposition to Palestinian aspirations.

Many voters complained about a bitter campaign of ugly attacks and a lack of inspiring choices.

“I am happy today to be able to vote, but I know I’ll be unhappy with the result, no matter who wins,” said Elad Grafi, 29, who lives in Rehovot, a large city south of Tel Aviv. Sneering at the likelihood of any candidate being able to form a coalition stable enough to last a full term, he added: “Anyway, I’ll see you here again in two years, right?”

In the Jerusalem suburb of Tzur Hadassah, Eli Paniri, 54, a longtime Likud supporter, said he “voted for the only person who should be prime minister – Netanyahu.”

“I am not ashamed of this,” Paniri said. “He is a strong man and, most important, he stood up to President Obama.”

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