Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party was the clear winner in Tuesday’s election, a near-final tally showed early Wednesday morning, defeating the Zionist Union by a margin of some six seats.
That margin was far more decisive than TV exit polls had predicted when polling booths closed at 10 p.m. on Tuesday. All three TV polls had put Likud and Zionist Union neck-and-neck at 27 seats, albeit with Netanyahu better-placed to form a coalition.
In a statement, Likud said Netanyahu intended to form a new government within weeks, with negotiations already underway with the pro-settler Jewish Home party led by Naftali Bennett, the centrist Kulanu party and ultra-Orthodox groups.
The critical party to get on side will be Kulanu, led by former Likud member and communications minister Moshe Kahlon, who won 10 seats, making him a kingmaker given his ability to side with either Netanyahu or the center-left opposition.
"Reality is not waiting for us," Netanyahu said. "The citizens of Israel expect us to quickly put together a leadership that will work for them regarding security, economy and society as we committed to do - and we will do so."
If he manages to pull together a workable coalition, it would give Netanyahu a fourth-term in office, putting him on track to become Israel's longest-serving prime minister, a label held by the country's founding father, David Ben-Gurion.
Netanyahu's victory is also likely to prolong the country's testy relationship with U.S. President Barack Obama, especially after his strident words on settlements and his backing away from the long-stated international goal of arriving at a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
During much of the campaign, Netanyahu had focused on security issues and the threat from Iran's nuclear program, a message that appeared to gain little traction with voters.
From the Palestinian point-of-view, the results are a deep concern, raising the prospect of more settlement expansion on land they want for their own state in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem, as well as in Gaza.
If Netanyahu follows through on his pledges it would put him on a collision course with the Obama administration and the European Union, which has been weighing steps including trade measures to sanction Israel for its settlements policy.
It also raises questions about what happens on Iran, with Obama determined to pursue negotiations towards a deal on its nuclear program and Netanyahu determined to scupper any deal.
The Palestinians may quickly create problems for Netanyahu as they will formally become members of the International Criminal Court on April 1 and have said they will pursue war crimes charges against Israel over its 48-year occupation of the West Bank and last year's war in Gaza.
Pre-empting those steps, Israel has suspended the transfer of tax revenue it collects on the Palestinians' behalf, holding back around $120 million a month. That has crippled the Palestinian budget and led to deep pay cuts for state workers.
Russia plans to station state-of-the art missiles in its westernmost Baltic exclave and deploy nuclear-capable bombers to Crimea as part of massive war games to showcase its resurgent military power amid bitter tensions with the West over Ukraine.
The Russian military exercises this week range from the Arctic to the Pacific Ocean and involve tens of thousands of troops, the Defence Ministry said Tuesday.
The wide-ranging exercise started Monday, when President Vladimir Putin ordered the Northern Fleet and other military forces on combat alert as part of the exercise in the Arctic. Other units in the Pacific region, southern Siberia and southwestern Russia also launched drills.
The Iskander missiles deployment to Kaliningrad reflects Moscow’s readiness to raise the ante in response to NATO moves to deploy forces closer to Russia’s borders. The missiles, which are capable of hitting enemy targets up to 500 kilometres with high precision, can be equipped with a nuclear or a conventional warhead. From Kaliningrad, they could reach several NATO member states.