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Netanyahu secures a fourth term

After a bruising campaign, Israel's prime minister faces criticism for hard-line stances on Iran and Mideast peace.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his Likud party took 30 seats in the 120-seat parliament.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his Likud party took 30 seats in the 120-seat parliament.Read moreXinhua, Zuma Press, TNS

TEL AVIV, Israel - At Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's victory celebration early Wednesday, his supporters began to chant, "You are the magician!"

After a resounding clutch comeback in parliamentary elections, Netanyahu is poised to serve a record fourth term as prime minister. If he makes it through the full four-year term, his time in office could exceed that of Israel's longest-serving leader, the country's founder, David Ben-Gurion.

Netanyahu will form his next government after a bruising campaign that exposed him to allegations of racism and hysteria, for his complaint that "droves" of Arab Israeli citizens were voting and his warning that his opponents would welcome the militant Islamist group Hamas to the edges of Jerusalem.

On Wednesday, Netanyahu and his Likud party began negotiating a new coalition government, which will probably be buttressed by nationalists, religious Zionists, populist former Likudniks, the pro-settlement camp, and two religious parties that represent ultra-Orthodox Jews.

But the next Netanyahu government will face a host of challenges at home, on its borders and abroad. On Monday, in the heat of the campaign, Netanyahu vowed that he would not support the creation of a Palestinian state as long as he was prime minister, a stunning reversal of his earlier stance supporting a two-state solution to the Israel-Palestinian conflict.

His announcement convinced many Netanyahu skeptics that this has been the prime minister's true position all along and that he has wasted American time and patience by pretending to endorse two states. The creation of a Palestinian state was the focus of nine months of negotiations last year led by Secretary of State John Kerry.

In Europe, leaders frustrated by more than four decades of military occupation in the West Bank and the repeated failures of peace talks have begun to openly debate employing sanctions against Israel to push for a sovereign Palestinian state, which Netanyahu now vows he would never allow.

More trouble - in the guise of resolutions and condemnations of Israel's human-rights record - could await Netanyahu in the international community. The United Nations said Wednesday that it expects Israel to continue with the Middle East peace process to negotiate a Palestinian state.

Reacting to Netanyahu's win, the Palestinian leadership in Ramallah promised Wednesday to go to the International Criminal Court at the Hague on April 1 to press war-crimes charges against Israeli soldiers and leaders, focusing on the civilian deaths during the 50-day war in Gaza during the summer and the continued construction of Jewish settlements in the Israeli-occupied West Bank.

For his part, Netanyahu has said in the past that it is war crimes and terror attacks by Hamas that the United Nations should be condemning.

The election was closely watched in Washington, where relations are strained between Netanyahu and the White House after the prime minister gave a speech to Congress two weeks ago opposing the Obama administration's possible deal with Iran to rein in Tehran's nuclear program.

Netanyahu, who has made the fight against a nuclear Iran the centerpiece of his foreign policy, will probably side with congressional Republicans again and clash with President Obama if Kerry secures what the prime minister considers "a bad deal."

Kerry called Netanyahu on Wednesday morning to congratulate him. Israeli news media spent the day speculating on when Obama would phone.

Netanyahu and Likud took 30 seats in the 120-seat parliament, against the 24 forecast for the center-left Zionist Union alliance of Labor Party leader Isaac Herzog and his running mate, former peace negotiator Tzipi Livni.

Netanyahu's victory represents a crushing defeat for his challengers, who believed themselves so close to a win, based on opinion surveys, that they were already negotiating cabinet appointments for their new government.