TEL AVIV – Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu looked set for victory on Wednesday as the preliminary vote count put his Likud party well ahead of its nearest rivals in a result likely to further strain relations with the Palestinians.
With around 70 per cent of votes counted, Likud was leading with 23.73 per cent, the Central Elections Committee said, with the centre-left Zionist Union trailing on 19.06 per cent.
Public radio said the data represented 30 seats in the 120-member parliament for Likud and 24 for the Zionist Union.
Netanyahu had already claimed victory in Tuesday's election and the initial results seemed to ensure him a third straight term, although he will need the backing of his allies to form a coalition.
Exit polls published on two TV stations had given Likud and Zionist Union 27 seats each in the 120-member parliament. A third poll gave Likud a one-seat lead.
Netanyahu had put security at the forefront of his campaign, arguing he is the only one capable of protecting Israel from an Iranian nuclear threat and vowing never to allow the Palestinians to establish a capital in east Jerusalem.
The Palestinians vowed to step up their diplomatic campaign for statehood.
"It is clear that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will form the next government, so we say clearly that we will go to the International Criminal Court in the Hague and we will speed up, pursue and intensify" all diplomatic efforts, said chief negotiator Saeb Erakat.
'Against all odds'
"Against all odds we achieved a great victory for the Likud. We achieved a great victory for the national camp under the leadership of the Likud. We achieved a great victory for our people of Israel!" Netanyahu told cheering supporters at campaign headquarters in Tel Aviv.
"Now we have to build a strong and stable government," he added.
But Zionist Union leader Isaac Herzog, 54, insisted he was still in the race to form the next government.
"Everything is open," he told activists in Tel Aviv.
"I intend to make every effort to build a real social government in Israel."
Some 5.8 million people were eligible to vote, with 25 parties vying for the Knesset.
Turnout was 71.8 per cent, up from 67.8 per cent in 2013. — AFP