Israel's Netanyahu emerges with slight edge after tight race

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Israel's Netanyahu emerges with slight edge after tight race
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu Likud party supporters react to exit poll results at the party's election headquarters In Tel Aviv.Tuesday, March 17, 2015. Israelis are voting in early parliament elections following a campaign focused on economic issues such as the high cost of living, rather than fears of a nuclear Iran or the Israeli-Arab conflict. (AP Photo/Oded Balilty)
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu casts his vote during Israel's parliamentary elections in Jerusalem, Tuesday, March 17, 2015. Israelis are voting in early parliament elections following a campaign focused on economic issues such as the high cost of living, rather than fears of a nuclear Iran or the Israeli-Arab conflict. (AP Photo/Sebastian Scheiner, Pool)
A screen shows an exit poll estimation of the first results of Israel's parliamentary election with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin's Netanyahu Likud party and Herzog Isaac centre-left Zionist Union neck-and-neck in Tel Aviv on March 17, 2015. AFP PHOTO / JACK GUEZ (Photo credit should read JACK GUEZ/AFP/Getty Images)
KIRYAT YEARIM, ISRAEL - MARCH 17: An Orthodox Jewish man casts his ballot at a polling station on election day on March 17, 2015 in Kiryat Ye'arim, Israel. Israel's general election voting has begun today as polls show on that Chairman of the Zionist Union party, Isaac Herzog stands as the only rival to current Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. (Photo by Lior Mizrahi/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - MARCH 3: Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks before joint session of Congress, on March, 03, 2015 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post via Getty Images)
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu went neck and neck with Zionist Union Party leader Issac Herzog but ultimately pulled away in the election.
Co-leaders of the Zionist Union party, Israeli Labour Party leader Isaac Herzog (L) and Israeli MP Tzipi Livni, speak to the media in Modiin, near Tel Aviv, on March 17, 2015 as Israelis vote in a close-fought election pitting the centre left against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu who is fighting for his political survival after six years in power. AFP PHOTO / GIL COHEN-MAGEN (Photo credit should read GIL COHEN MAGEN/AFP/Getty Images)
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu waves as he speaks before a joint meeting of Congress on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, March 3, 2015. Since Republicans took control of Congress two months ago, an elaborate tug of war has broken out between GOP lawmakers and Obama over who calls the shots on major issues for the next two years. In the course of a few hours Tuesday, House Republicans caved to Obama on Homeland Security funding and immigration. Yet they also antagonized him by giving Israel's prime minister a perch in Congress to rail against nuclear talks with Iran. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu looks on as he opens the weekly cabinet meeting at his Jerusalem office on February 1, 2015. AFP PHOTO / POOL / GALI TIBBON (Photo credit should read GALI TIBBON/AFP/Getty Images)
As Israeli soldiers cast early votes in Israel's upcoming election, the outlook for sitting Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is not good. Challengers Isaac Herzog and Tzipi Livni -- whom Netanyahu booted from the government late last year -- and their Zionist Union look likely to win the most seats in Israel's parliament, with Netanyahu's Likud Party about four seats behind.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) Policy Conference in Washington, Monday, March 2, 2015. Netanyahu is seizing the high-profile bully pulpit of the U.S. House to deliver his stern message about the dangers of a nuclear deal that President Barack Obama and U.S. allies might sign with Israel’s archenemy. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)
TEL AVIV, ISRAEL - MARCH 17: Supporters of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu celebrate as election results come in at his election campaign headquarters on March 17, 2015 in Tel Aviv, Israel. After the ballot boxes were closed at 10 P.M. Tuesday, exit polls showed the two main contenders, Netanyahu of Likud and Isaac Herzog of the Zionist Union party, were neck and neck with 27 Knesset seats each, with a slight lead for Likud. Netanyahu has announced a 'great victory'. (Photo by Lior Mizrahi/Getty Images)
Members of the anti-Zionist ultra-Orthodox Neturei Karta group, a group that opposes Zionism and the Israeli state, hold signs during a demonstration against Prime Minister Benamin Netanyahu's U.S. visit, in front of the U.S. consulate in Jerusalem, Tuesday, March 3, 2015. (AP Photo/Sebastian Scheiner)
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) Policy Conference in Washington, Monday, March 2, 2015. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)
Capitol Police attempt to move demonstrators, calling for a free Palestine, off of a street near the Capitol in Washington, Tuesday, March 3, 2015, where Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will address a joint meeting of Congress later in the morning. (AP Photo/Cliff Owen)
Demonstrators calling for a free Palestine march on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, March 3, 2015, before Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's address to a joint meeting of Congress. (AP Photo/Cliff Owen)
WASHINGTON, DC - MARCH 3: Anti-Zionist Orthodox Jews protest Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's address to Congress outside the U.S. Capitol on March 3, 2015 in Washington, D.C. Netanyahu will speak to Congress on Iran's nuclear ambitions and President Obama's emerging deal with Tehran. (Photo by Gabriella Demczuk/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - MARCH 3: An Anti-Zionist Orthodox Jew protests Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's address to Congress outside the U.S. Capitol on March 3, 2015 in Washington, D.C. Netanyahu will speak to Congress on Iran's nuclear ambitions and President Obama's emerging deal with Tehran. (Photo by Gabriella Demczuk/Getty Images)
President Barack Obama meets with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, Monday, March 3, 2014. Seeking to keep a pair of delicate diplomatic efforts afloat, Obama will personally appeal to Netanyahu to move forward on peace talks with the Palestinians, while also trying to manage Israel's deep suspicion of his pursuit of a nuclear accord with Iran. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)
President Barack Obama meets with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, Monday, March 3, 2014. Seeking to keep a pair of delicate diplomatic efforts afloat, Obama will personally appeal to Netanyahu to move forward on peace talks with the Palestinians, while also trying to manage Israel's deep suspicion of his pursuit of a nuclear accord with Iran. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)
President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu shake hands during their meeting in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, Monday, March 3, 2014. Seeking to keep a pair of delicate diplomatic efforts afloat, Obama will personally appeal to Netanyahu to move forward on peace talks with the Palestinians, while also trying to manage Israel's deep suspicion of his pursuit of a nuclear accord with Iran. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)
Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu chairs the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem, Sunday, Feb. 15, 2015. (AP Photo/Abir Sultan)
FILE - In this Dec. 3, 2014, file photo, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during a faction meeting at the Knesset, Israel's parliament in Jerusalem. When Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu dissolved his unwieldy coalition and called new elections last month, he appeared to be a lock to return to office. But a new center-left alliance has suddenly surged in the polls past his ruling Likud party to become the largest parliamentary faction and turned the March 17 vote into a toss-up. (AP Photo/Sebastian Scheiner, File)
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends the weekly cabinet meeting in his Jerusalem office, Sunday, Feb. 8, 2015. (AP Photo/Sebastian Scheiner, Pool)
On the morning after President Barack Obama's State of the Union speech, House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio, tells reporters that he has asked Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to address Congress on dealing with terrorism but that he did not consult the White House on the invitation, Wednesday, Jan. 21, 2015, on Capitol Hill in Washington. From left are, Rep. Lynn Jenkins, R-Kansas, House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy of Calif., House Majority Whip Steve Scalise of La. and Boehner. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)
Israeli Likud Party supporters react to the exit polls while they wait for the announcement of the first official results of Israel's parliamentary elections on March 17, 2015 at the party's headquarters in the city of Tel Aviv. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's rightwing Likud party is neck-and-neck with the centre-left Zionist Union in the general election, exit polls said. AFP PHOTO / MENAHEM KAHANA (Photo credit should read MENAHEM KAHANA/AFP/Getty Images)
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TEL AVIV, Israel (AP) -- Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's ruling Likud Party scored a resounding victory in the country's election, final results showed Wednesday, a stunning turnaround after a tight race that had put his lengthy rule in jeopardy.

With nearly all the votes counted, Likud appeared to have earned 30 out of parliament's 120 seats and was in a position to be able to build a coalition government with its right-wing and religious allies with relative ease.

The election was widely seen as a referendum on Netanyahu, who has governed the country for the past six years. Recent opinion polls indicated he was in trouble, giving chief rival Isaac Herzog of the opposition Zionist Union a slight lead. Exit polls showed the two sides deadlocked but once the actual results came pouring in early Wednesday, Likud soared forward. Zionist Union wound up with just 24 seats.

Even before the final results were known, Netanyahu declared victory and pledged to form a new government quickly.

"Against all odds, we achieved a great victory for the Likud," Netanyahu told supporters at election night headquarters. "I am proud of the people of Israel, who in the moment of truth knew how to distinguish between what is important and what is peripheral, and to insist on what is important."

Netanyahu focused his campaign on security issues, while his opponents instead pledged to address the country's high cost of living and accused the leader of being out of touch with everyday people.

Netanyahu's return to power for a fourth term likely spells trouble for Mideast peace efforts and could further escalate tensions with the United States.

Netanyahu, who already has a testy relationship with President Barack Obama, took a sharp turn to the right in the final days of the campaign, staking out a series of hard-line positions that will put him at odds with the international community.

In a dramatic policy reversal, he said he now opposes the creation of a Palestinian state - a key policy goal of the White House and the international community. He also promised to expand construction in Jewish areas of east Jerusalem, the section of the city claimed by the Palestinians as their capital.

Netanyahu infuriated the White House early this month when he delivered a speech to the U.S. Congress criticizing an emerging nuclear deal with Iran. The speech was arranged with Republican leaders and not coordinated with the White House ahead of time.

In Washington, White House spokesman Josh Earnest said Obama was confident strong U.S.-Israeli ties would endure far beyond the election regardless of the victor.

Netanyahu will still need the support of Moshe Kahlon, whose upstart Kulanu party captured 10 seats and whose campaign focused almost entirely on bread-and-butter economic issues. He is expected to become the country's next finance minister.

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