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Netanyahu vows to build ‘strong government’ as Likud celebrates ‘massive win’

After two failed tries to form a government, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Tuesday declared a “gigantic victory” for his Likud party in Monday’s election, even as exit polls signaled he could yet struggle to form a majority coalition after the third election in a year.

Netanyahu vowed to quickly build a “strong national government,” seemingly referring to a coalition of right-wing and religious parties, but also said he would heal the nation’s rifts sown by three successive campaigns.

“Tomorrow, after we’ve got some sleep, we will meet [with right-wing leaders] to form a strong, stable government, a good national government for Israel,” said Netanyahu. “This was a great victory for the right-wing camp, and first and foremost a victory for us Likudnikim.”

Exit polls released late Monday and early Tuesday showed Likud reaching 36 or 37 seats, a gain of four or five over its current total, and trouncing main rival Blue and White, led by former general Benny Gantz.

As results began to trickle in early Tuesday, Likud held a lead of several percentage points over Blue and White, with some 6.5 percent reporting.

The prime minister was met with deafening applause as he addressed a crowd of Likud supporters in Tel Aviv, who chanted his name and slogans of support. Some shouted “Mandelblit, go home,” in a reference to the attorney general who has indicted him on corruption charges, while others rejected the prospects of a unity government with Blue and White.

“I want to say, I intend to be the prime minister of every citizen of Israel, every right-wing voter, left-wing voter, Jews and non-Jews, every sector and every gender,” said Netanyahu.

“We must avoid any more elections. It’s time to heal the rifts. It’s time for reconciliation.”

The election was the third in just under a year, after both he and Gantz failed to muster enough support for a governing coalition in the previous two tries.

According to amended exit polls overnight Monday-Tuesday, the right-wing bloc led by Netanyahu was poised to pick up 59 seats — two short of a parliamentary majority in the 120-seat Knesset.

Speaking at another Tel Aviv rally, Gantz admitted disappointment in the results but urged party faithful to wait until final results. He cited April’s election, which also initially showed an easy victory for Netanyahu, but turned out to leave him one seat shy of a majority.

Netanyahu, who is facing criminal proceedings in three cases set to start later this month, hailed the results as coming “against all odds.”

“We stood against vast forces, they already eulogized us. Our opponents said, ‘the Netanyahu era is over.’ But together we flipped the script. We turned lemons to lemonade.”

Netanyahu pledged to forge peace agreements with “major” Arab states, annex areas of the West Bank, neutralize Iranian threats, and clinch a mutual defense treaty with the United States during his next term as premier.

He was met with loud cheers when he mentioned his promise to annex large parts of the West Bank, which he has promised to do under the aegis of the US administration’s peace plan.

On Israel’s clandestine ties with the Arab world, Netanyahu said the diplomatic contacts that were publicized, such as with Oman, Sudan, and Chad, were merely the “tip of the iceberg.”

Peace deals with Muslim and Arab countries are “only a matter of time — and not a lot of time. And only we can do it,” he said.

The jubilant celebrations among Likud supporters broke out long before Netanyahu’s early morning speech, first as rumors of a major win began to circulate and later as exit polls were released.

To some supporters, the projected results were the realization of a far-off dream.

The first rumors of a major gain for the right-wing party were floating around the event hall long before the polls closed and Israel’s three major television networks aired their projections.

People could be heard saying that Likud was set to do surprisingly well, while the rival Blue and White list was poised to suffer a major decline, as early as 7 p.m.

Likud had managed 35 seats in April but slipped by three seats in September. Since then, its leader had been indicted in three criminal cases.

Avi Hyman, who heads the Likud’s Anglo campaign, expressed confidence that his party was about celebrate a veritable landslide victory, crediting the party’s get-out-the-vote drive.

Even if he does clinch 61 seats, Netanyahu still faces a likely court challenge should President Reuven Rivlin task him with forming a government, given the criminal charges against him.

Nava said he was worried that the court would disqualify him, but vowed that if they did, the party would revolt.

“We’d have to overturn the country,” he responded coolly. “We’ll have to take to the streets and turn everything on its head. We voted for Netanyahu. We didn’t vote for the Supreme Court.”

Netanyahu himself has hinted he could advance judicial reforms if re-elected that could shift the makeup of the court and strip it of the ability to overturn Knesset moves and legislation it deems unconstitutional. The court is seen as one of the country’s last liberal bastions and critics have warned such moves would irresponsibly damage Israel’s democratic character.

Header: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife Sara addresses their supporters on the night of the Israeli elections, at the party headquarters in Tel Aviv, on March 3, 2020. Photo by Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90 *** Local Caption ***