TEL AVIV, Israel – Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's right-wing Likud Party scored a resounding victory in Israel's election, final results showed Wednesday, a stunning turnaround after a tight race that had put his lengthy rule in jeopardy.
Netanyahu surged ahead after a last-minute lurch to the right in which he opposed Palestinian statehood and vowed continued settlement construction, setting the stage for fresh confrontations with the White House weeks after criticizing U.S. talks with Iran in a divisive address to Congress.
With nearly all votes counted, Likud seemed to have earned 30 of parliament's 120 seats and was in a position to build a coalition government.
On Wednesday, Netanyahu visited the Western Wall in Jerusalem's Old City. "I'm touched by the weight of the responsibility that the people of Israel have put on my shoulders. I wish to say that I will do anything in my power to ensure the well-being and security of all the citizens of Israel," he said.
The election was widely seen as a referendum on Netanyahu, who has governed for the past six years. Recent opinion polls indicated he was in trouble, giving chief rival Isaac Herzog's center-left Zionist Union a slight lead. Exit polls Tuesday showed the two sides tied, but the Zionist Union dropped to 24 seats.
It is all but assured that Israeli President Reuven Rivlin will task Netanyahu with forming a new government. Netanyahu says he hopes to do so within two to three weeks.
Netanyahu focused his campaign primarily on security issues, while his opponents pledged to address the high cost of living and housing crisis while accusing him of being out of touch. Netanyahu will likely look to battle that image now by adding to his government Moshe Kahlon, whose Kulanu party captured 10 seats with a campaign focused on economic issues. Kahlon is expected to be the next finance minister.
A union of four largely Arab-backed factions became Israel's third largest party.
Herzog conceded defeat, saying he called Netanyahu and offered him congratulations. He signaled that he would not join forces with Netanyahu and would rather head the opposition.
"At this moment what Israel needs most of all is another voice, a voice that offers an alternative and a voice that tells it the truth," he said. "The problems are the same. Nothing has changed."
Netanyahu's return to power for a fourth term likely spells trouble for Mideast peace efforts and could escalate tensions with Washington.
In a dramatic policy reversal, he said he now opposes the creation of a Palestinian state — a key policy goal of the White House.
The Obama administration admonished Netanyahu's political party on Wednesday, accusing it of using anti-Arab rhetoric. A spokesman said Obama still believes in Palestinian statehood.
Press secretary Josh Earnest said the White House was "deeply concerned" about Likud's divisive language. He said the party tried to marginalize Israel's Arab community. "These are views the administration intends to convey directly to the Israelis," he said.