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Netanyahu victorious after Likud pulls ahead in Israeli election

The right-wing Likud Party, in a last-minute turn of events, has surged ahead of the center-left Zionist Union for control of Israel's parliament.

TEL AVIV -- In a last-minute turn of events, the right-wing Likud Party has surged ahead of the center-left Zionist Union for control of Israel's parliament, with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu claiming victory just before final results are announced.

"Against all odds:a [sic] great victory for the Likud," Netanyahu tweeted Tuesday night, less than one hour after ballot boxes closed. "A major victory for the people of Israel!"

Despite the prime minister's declaration, the ultimate outcome of the Israeli election remains up in the air. Netanyahu and his chief rival, Zionist Union leader Isaac Herzog, are both far short of a 61-seat majority. That means Netanyahu, even if he emerges with the lead, will have to stitch together another majority coalition of smaller parties to retain his role as prime minister. A critical swing vote could be former Likud politician Moshe Kahlon's new Kulanu party, which has yet to make clear where it stands.

As Netanyahu gained the upper hand Tuesday night, with The Jerusalem Post reporting Likud had won 30 seats to the Zionist Union's 24, analysts predict Netanyahu will form a majority coalition, allowing him to serve a fourth term as prime minister. Experts expect him to assemble a coalition with right-wing parties Jewish Home, Shas, Yisrael Beiteinu, and Yehadut HaTorah, and centrist party Kulanu, which would bring him beyond that 61-seat target.

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Herzog conceded defeat early Wednesday morning, saying he had spoken with Netanyahu to congratulate him on his election victory. "A few minutes ago, I spoke with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and congratulated him on his achievement and wished him luck," Herzog told reporters. 

Herzog faced a tougher climb because he does not have support from Israel's right-wing and religious parties. And according to Joint Arab List spokeswoman Reut Mor, the Arab parties are not willing to join any Israeli government. That leaves Herzog with only Kulanu, Yesh Atid and Meretz -- not enough for a majority coalition.

Still, building a coalition takes time, and nothing is certain. Israeli President Reuven Rivlin has said he wants to see a unity government, which would require Netanyahu to join forces with his more left-wing rivals -- something the prime minister has not agreed to doing. 

Additional reporting by Benjy Sarlin.