Middle East

Likud celebrates surprise success in Israeli election

Supporters of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's Likud party react to exit poll figures as they wait for the announcement of the first official results of Israel's parliamentary elections on March 17, 2015 Image copyright AFP
Image caption There was a jubilant mood at the Likud headquarters as the results became clear

At the Likud election headquarters in Tel Aviv they began preparing for a party long before they were sure they had anything to celebrate.

That is in the nature of election night planning - the PA system had to be tested and the bunting hung around the stage when it was still distinctly possible that the party might be heading for a defeat.

Until the very last hour of polling day the mood was pretty tense.

Everyone knew that polls towards the end of campaigning had been suggesting that Likud was trailing the left-of-centre opposition.

No-one could be sure that Benjamin Netanyahu's rather desperate-looking last minute blitz of media interviews would pay off.

But in that last hour before the polls finally closed the mood began to change quickly.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption The vote was described as a "great victory" for the Likud party

Rumours swept the room that the TV exit polls would show Likud with more seats than anyone had predicted - perhaps as many as 28 - and would show it possibly topping the polls.

When the TV stations went on air with something very like that story the room erupted.

A party anthem blasted out of the PA system, banners began waving wildly and Likud activists began pulling on party T-shirts over their smart business clothes.

One official who admitted he had been worried before the news began to leak from the TV companies said afterwards simply that this was a victory that put Mr Netanyahu back in the Prime Minister's residence.

The long hours of work on polling day in Israel are followed by equally long hours on the calculator app of the smartphone as activists anxiously tot up the figures for various different parties and debate coalition strategies.

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption The Zionist Union will find it harder to form a coalition

The Likud activists were dancing and singing within minutes of the TV stations broadcasting their exit polls quite simply because they can see a relatively simple pathway towards the formation of another right-wing coalition.

It would involve Mr Netanyahu teaming up with the secularists of Yisraeli Beitenu and Kulanu and adding the religious nationalists of Jewish Home and the parties that represent ultra-orthodox Jews like Shas.

There'd be personal ambitions to balance one against the other and each of those parties would have a shopping list of demands that might not always be compatible with the demands of the others.

But the outline of a workable coalition can be seen much more easily from this vantage point than from the point of view of the leftist Zionist Union led by Yitzhak Herzog of the Labour Party.

He campaigned well and if the exit polls are to be believed he polled pretty well too but the coalition arithmetic simply doesn't look so good for him.

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption A unity government would involve Mr Herzog (left) and Mr Netanyahu sharing power

If a new right-of-centre coalition is formed it will be formed in the context of Mr Netanyahu indicating that he was prepared to block the formation of a Palestinian state.

International observers trying to interpret what this result means for hopes of a resumption in the peace process between Israel and the Palestinians will see that as a bleak signal.

A Herzog-led government might have been a more comfortable partner for the US State Department and for European governments interested in reviving talks.

But for now, it appears that the Israeli electorate has decided otherwise.

There is much counting still to do and much negotiating before any coalition emerges.

But the results of the night have left Benjamin Netanyahu's supporters dancing and singing, and they at least have no doubt of what has happened in this election even if the official results are slow in coming.

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