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March 2, 2020 10:02 pm

Netanyahu Claims ‘Enormous Victory,’ Pledges to Form ‘Nationalist Government’

avatar by Benjamin Kerstein

Confetti falls as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu stands next to his wife Sara after speaking to supporters following the announcement of exit polls in Israel’s election at his Likud party headquarters in Tel Aviv, Israel, March 3, 2020. Photo: REUTERS/Amir Cohen.

Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu claimed an “enormous victory” in the country’s 2020 elections on Monday night, saying he planned to form a “nationalist government that is good for Israel.”

Early exit polls showed a decisive advantage for Netanyahu’s right-religious bloc with 60 Knesset seats, only one short of a majority.

By the time he spoke at Likud’s victory party, however, all three major television channels projected that the right-religious bloc had dropped to 59 seats, meaning the prime minister may be forced to look outside his natural coalition partners on the right to form a government.

None of this was in evidence at Netanyahu’s speech, however, with the prime minister telling the euphoric crowd, “this is a night of enormous victory” as he was frequently forced to stop by the applause and chants from the audience.

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“This is the biggest victory of my life,” Netanyahu said, according to Israeli news website N12. “Together we did the impossible.”

“I remember our first victory in 1996,” he recalled, referring to his truncated first term as prime minister. “That was a historic victory, but this victory is as big if not bigger — because it was against all the odds.”

The prime minister also touted his record, saying, “Together, we turned Israel into a superpower,” citing growing relations with Arab and Muslim countries and promising to sign peace treaties with them.

“It’s just a question of time,” he said. “Not much time. Only we can do it.”

Netanyahu also promised to annex parts of the West Bank, “destroy the Iranian threat,” and “bring great economic reforms to lower the cost of living.”

“This is a mission to secure the State of Israel’s future for generations,” he said. “This is my life’s mission.”

Netanyahu said he would start negotiations with “our natural partners” on the right in order “to establish together a strong and stable government, a nationalist government that is good for Israel.”

Netanyahu’s chief rival, Blue and White party leader Benny Gantz, attempted to strike a balance between acknowledging the party’s setback and leaving his supporters with a sense of hope for the future, saying, “I understand and share your sense of sadness and disappointment. This is not the result we wanted.”

He pledged that Blue and White would remain united and continue on the same path, saying, “Our country needs healing, unity, reconciliation. It longs for a leadership that will bring it together, and we will continue to offer this to the Israeli public.”

He also took a swipe at Netanyahu, who he has accused of running a particularly dirty campaign, stating, “We stand tonight at the end of one of the most difficult election campaigns that ever were in the State of Israel.”

“Many lies and slanders have been circulated about us and about me personally,” Gantz said. “They thought I’d panic, they thought I’d blink, and I’m telling you, it didn’t happen and it will never happen.”

The right-wing Yamina party celebrated the results, with leader Naftali Bennett saying that Netanyahu had already called him about forming a possible coalition, and confirming he would recommend to the president that Netanyahu form the next government, Yediot Aharonot reported.

Bennett also implied that his party would push Netanyahu to formally annex parts of the West Bank, saying, “With the help of God, a sovereignty government arose in Israel today.”

Avigdor Lieberman, head of the Yisrael Beiteinu party, whose refusal to sit in a Netanyahu-led government after the April 2019 elections set Israel on the path to two further elections, sounded a defiant note, saying he would not make any compromises in order to be included in a right-wing coalition.

“We are a party with principles,” Lieberman said, according to Israeli news website Walla. “Everything we said before the elections still holds after the elections. In regard to our basic, principled stand, there will be no change.”

Among Lieberman’s stances that have put him in conflict with Netanyahu are what Lieberman sees as the prime minister’s overly conciliatory approach to Hamas in Gaza and the separation of religion and state, especially in regard to the Haredi community’s exemption from mandatory army service.

On the left, the disappointment at Blue and White’s failure to secure a victory was clear and angry.

Labor-Gesher-Meretz party leader Amir Peretz told supporters, “At the critical moments, Blue and White’s irresponsible campaign hurt the [center-left] camp,” Israel’s Channel 13 reported.

The party’s number two, Orly Levy-Abekasis, also blasted Gantz, saying, “If Gantz had taken responsibility and acted as we requested … perhaps we would be here today with a different result.”

Even angrier was Ayman Odeh, head of the Arab-majority Joint List party, who said, “Blue and White’s campaign was racist, and they failed.”

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