In a dizzying outcome to a divisive and angry Israeli election campaign, preliminary official results early Wednesday pointed to a sweeping victory for the party of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, paving the way for him to form a new government.
Through a long night of vote-counting that began with exit polls suggesting a dead heat, Netanyahu's conservative Likud Party opened a lead over his main rival, the left-center Zionist Union, that widened by dawn to five or six seats in the 120-member Knesset, or parliament. With more than 99% of the vote counted, the tally was 29 or 30 seats for Likud to 24 for the Zionist Union, according to tallies posted on Israeli news sites. A final count will take some days.
Netanyahu, a consummate political survivor, had gone into Tuesday's vote trailing in opinion polls, and had painted even the deadlock suggested by exit polls as a victory. By dawn, his supporters were rejoicing deliriously over a turnabout that, if borne out in the final official tally, appeared to give him a clear mandate to seek to remain Israel's leader, though he will still need to woo key political factions to do so.
Addressing cheering, chanting supporters early Wednesday at his headquarters, Netanyahu declared that "reality does not take time out.... The citizens of Israel expect us to swiftly form a responsible leadership that will work for them, and so we shall do."
But the scorched-earth campaign waged by the prime minister and his backers pointed to political fissures that will probably emerge again.
Initially, as the count was beginning, Isaac Herzog of the Zionist Union said he too would try to head a governing coalition. "We will wait for the real results," he said. "The people of Israel want change."
As the hours went by, however, those hopes appeared dashed. "The people have decided, loud and clear — Israel has spoken," said Nachman Shai, a senior lawmaker in Herzog's party. "The people want a right-wing government, and got it."
Throughout the campaign, the two candidates were a study in contrasts, not only in style and personality but also on the big issues confronting Israel. Herzog said he would try to engage the Palestinians and mend ties with Europe and the United States; Netanyahu sought to quash Palestinian statehood hopes and railed against foreign critics who he said were trying to unseat him.
Reflecting voter passions, turnout was estimated to be even higher than the 68% in the last election, which was the highest in 16 years. Throughout the day, soldiers in rumpled uniforms, ultra-Orthodox Jews in long black coats and twentysomethings with nose rings made their way to polling stations across the country, sometimes waiting patiently in long lines.
No single political party has ever captured a majority in the Knesset. So the popular vote is only the first step in the painstaking process of assembling a governing coalition. Netanyahu will need to build alliances with an array of smaller parties to achieve the 61 seats necessary to govern.
Even the dead heat originally forecast in exit polls had represented a deeply disappointing outcome for the Zionist Union. Herzog's supporters had hoped that the lead of up to five seats, projected in the final opinion polls before the vote, would translate into a victory sufficiently commanding that the 54-year-old lawyer-politician would be asked by President Reuven Rivlin to form the next government.
The president had expressed hope for a so-called unity government that would incorporate the rival factions. Netanyahu, however, has ruled out such a scenario.
The Zionist Union, having put the campaign focus in the final days on ousting the prime minister, would be hard-pressed to embrace him, although Herzog said earlier he would talk to any party, including Netanyahu's.
As the exit polls were reported and the vote-counting began, the mood in the stunned crowd at Zionist Union headquarters was subdued, although Herzog's post-midnight appearance drew warm cheers. "You put your heart and soul into this campaign," he told backers.
Netanyahu in recent days had made a frantic push to retain support from conservative and nationalist voters amid signs the electorate had tired of him, and hardened already hard-line positions toward the Palestinians.
On election eve, he declared that there would be no Palestinian state on his watch and that Jewish construction would continue in East Jerusalem, which the Palestinians want as the capital of their future state.
On election day, he drew widespread criticism with a Facebook video declaring that voters from Israel's Arab minority were descending "en masse" on the polls, a stance denounced as racist by his opponents.
The preliminary picture painted by the exit polls illustrated a highly fragmented political scene that analysts predicted would make it difficult for either Netanyahu or Herzog to assemble a governing coalition or to keep that alliance from fracturing. But the later figures suggested Netanyahu would have a much more solid base on which to build.
The preliminary tally pointed to a political landmark: A political alliance of Israeli Arabs, who normally distance themselves from the country's political scene, emerged as the third-largest party in parliament.
"We are in the midst of a historic founding moment," said the alliance's leader, Ayman Odeh, whose Joint List won up to 14 seats.
The new government that emerges from this maneuvering will be faced immediately with daunting challenges at home and abroad: economic woes that played an outsized role in the campaign; a damaged relationship with the United States, Israel's most important ally; and external threats such as Iran's nuclear program, which Netanyahu sought to frame as the most crucial threat to Israel's existence.
Herzog had said he would attempt to engage diplomatically with the Palestinians.
The prime minister's campaign had emphasized security issues, including the nuclear threat posed by Iran, while the center-left focused on social issues such as the soaring cost of living.
To some, Netanyahu's relentless focus on threats to Israel amounted to a scare tactic.
Irit Neeman, a 58-year-old lawyer and talent agent, said she voted for the Zionist Union because "I'm fed up of living in fear."
The prime minister's core supporters, however, remained loyal. In Tel Aviv's open-air Carmel Market, traditionally a Likud bastion, 46-year-old Adi Hayek, who runs a stall selling cheap cosmetics and drugstore goods, said he would not turn away from Netanyahu now.
"It's Bibi or nothing," he said, referring to Netanyahu by his nickname. "We are in good hands."