Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's chief opponent Isaac Herzog said Wednesday he had called the prime minister to congratulate him on his party's electoral victory, but vowed his own party would continue to "fight…for the values we believe in."
"This is not an easy morning for us and those who believe in our way," said a statement issued by Herzog's center-left Zionist Union, in the name of the candidate and his running mate Tzipi Livni. It was a considerable understatement; many of the party's supporters went to bed believing the Zionist Union had tied with Netanyahu's conservative Likud, as exit polls suggested late Tuesday.
But by morning, with nearly all the ballots counted, the tally showed 30 parliamentary seats for Netanyahu's party to 24 for Herzog's – a decisive victory for the prime minister, who is now well positioned to form a governing coalition.
The Herzog camp appeared stunned by the overnight reversal of fortunes. The final public opinion polls before Tuesday's vote, conducted last week, had shown the Zionist Union with a lead almost equal to what turned out to be its margin of defeat, and exit polls released as soon as the balloting ended had showed the two parties in a virtual dead heat, with each garnering 27 or 28 of the 120 seats in the Knesset, or parliament.
With Netanyahu expected to turn to right-wing and religious parties to assemble a parliamentary majority, the Zionist Union did not detail its plans as the coalition-building begins. It suggested, however, that it would act as the political opposition rather than entering into a so-called national unity government.
"We will fight on behalf of the citizens of Israel for social justice, diplomatic horizon, equality and democracy in the hope that we can maintain a just, safe, Jewish and democratic state," the statement said.
Herzog's own chances for putting together a governing coalition apeared remote, but a key centrist party that scored 10 seats still has not disclosed its leanings. That party, Kulanu, is led by former Likud Cabinet minister Moshe Kahlon.
Staff writer King reported from Tel Aviv and special correspondent Sobelman from Jerusalem.