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Netanyahu win throws peace talk prospects into doubt

Benjamin Netanyahu won a surprisingly clear-cut victory over his center-left challenger, despite initial exit polls showing the two in a dead heat. On Wednesday he pledged to protect the security and welfare of all Israelis, after what had been a divisive race. Gwen Ifill learns more from special correspondent Martin Seemungal, reporting from Tel Aviv.

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  • GWEN IFILL:

    Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu beat back a center-left challenge last night, scoring an unexpectedly strong reelection victory that threw future prospects for Israeli-Palestinian peace talks into doubt.

    Special correspondent Martin Seemungal is in Israel and reports on the mixed reaction to the news in the region and beyond.

  • MARTIN SEEMUNGAL:

    After his surprising clear-cut victory, Benjamin Netanyahu took time for an afternoon prayer at Judaism's holiest site, the Western Wall in Jerusalem.

  • BENJAMIN NETANYAHU, Prime Minister, Israel (through translator):

    I will do everything I can to care for the security and welfare of all Israelis.

  • MARTIN SEEMUNGAL:

    The man now set to serve a record fourth term as prime minister sought to strike an inclusive tone after what had been a divisive race.

    According to Jerusalem Post reporter Gil Hoffman, Netanyahu ran:

  • GIL HOFFMAN, The Jerusalem Post:

    A panicking campaign. He tried to make Israelis feel that they are in trouble, and that they need him.

  • MARTIN SEEMUNGAL:

    Initial exit polls showed they needed both Netanyahu and his top challenger, Isaac Herzog. They were in a dead-heat. But through the night, as the actual counting began, Netanyahu's Likud bloc racked up more seats. Too close to call became a rout, leaving Israelis deeply divided.

  • WOMAN:

    All of my Facebook is full of pretty sad, pretty sad comments.

  • MAN:

    Well, I voted for the Likud, so I went to bed quite happy, but I awoke — I was partying when I saw the results.

  • MARTIN SEEMUNGAL:

    The main challenger, Isaac Herzog, of the center-left Zionist Union coalition, said today he will sit in opposition and not join a government of national unity.

  • ISAAC HERZOG, Zionist Union (through interpreter):

    The challenges are the same challenges. The problems are the same problems. Nothing has changed.

  • MARTIN SEEMUNGAL:

    Among Palestinians, the same words, "Nothing has changed," but with far different meaning.

  • MOHAMMAD SAFI, Palestinian (interpreter):

    They will continue settlement buildings and expansions. They will do what's good for them and not for us.

  • MARTIN SEEMUNGAL:

    The Palestinians would like to see East Jerusalem as the capital of a new Palestinian state, but in the last days of the campaign, Benjamin Netanyahu made it clear that there would be no Palestinian state if he is reelected.

    That insistence led to grim predictions.

    Palestinian legislator Mustafa Barghouti:

  • MUSTAFA BARGHOUTI, Palestinian Parliament Member:

    Israel must be treated as the apartheid system was treated in South Africa at one point in time.

  • MARTIN SEEMUNGAL:

    And this from analyst Mohammad Darawshe, a Palestinian citizen of Israel.

  • MOHAMMAD DARAWSHE, Co-Executive Director, Givat Haviva Institute:

    If they go on to collision track, it means probably thousands of thousands of more Palestinian casualties in the streets. And they're going to continue their struggle to have a state.

  • MARTIN SEEMUNGAL:

    Still, Gil Hoffman thinks Netanyahu does have room to maneuver, even now.

  • GIL HOFFMAN:

    If the situation arises that would enable there to be movement forward on the Palestinian front, Netanyahu will move forward.

  • MARTIN SEEMUNGAL:

    The U.S. response to Netanyahu's victory election has been cool so far. State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said today his words over the last days had not gone unnoticed.

  • JEN PSAKI, State Department Spokeswoman:

    Based on the prime minister's comments, the United States is in a position going forward where we will be evaluating our approach with regard to how best to achieve a two-state solution.

  • MARTIN SEEMUNGAL:

    Last year, the president himself told an interviewer: "The window is closing for a peace deal that both can accept. What we know is that it gets harder by the day. What we also know is that Israel has become more isolated internationally."

    And for now at least, the election results have left the fractious relations between Mr. Obama and Netanyahu no closer to warming.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    And Martin joins me now from Tel Aviv.

    Martin, when we spoke about this time yesterday, there were early exit polls which suggested that Netanyahu might pull this out, but not by this much of a margin. So what is the mood today among his supporters and the people who wanted to defeat him?

  • MARTIN SEEMUNGAL:

    Well, a very mixed mood, a real reflection of the division in this country.

    On the one hand, you have the Likud supporters euphoric, a great deal of relief, because you have to remember that, going into the election, the days before, all the polls were saying that Likud wasn't going to do that well, it was going to poll at least two to three seats behind Isaac Herzog's center-left coalition.

    And, as a result, there was a great deal of fear among a lot of Likud supporters that they actually weren't going to make it. So when that final result came out this morning, they were — they were stunned. They were extremely euphoric that this had happened.

    On the other hand, you have the Zionist coalition, the center, center-left people who were, to use the words that we heard on the street today, shocked, devastated. They thought they had a real shot at it this time because of a perception that Netanyahu's popularity was dropping, was plummeting, and that, in fact, most Israelis wanted to see that change.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    And when you talk about coalitions, that is part of the conversation that is still under way at this point. How much — or has it even begun, the coalition-building that has to happen for this government to start working again?

  • MARTIN SEEMUNGAL:

    Well, there is a lot of conversations going on, but nothing has really started practically.

    Where we're at right now is, Netanyahu has said that he will form a coalition or try to put one together in the next two to three weeks. The way it works is, all the party leaders get together. They recommend somebody to the president who will be the person they would like to see to be prime minister.

    Now, we know that Isaac Herzog has said he's not going to serve in a Netanyahu unity government. He says he will serve in opposition, so it looks like, if Netanyahu is going to put this coalition together, which everyone expects, it's going to be the Jewish Home Party on the right, also some of the religious parties, and, of course, Moshe Kahlon, the former minister in Netanyahu's party who left two years ago, formed his own party, got 10 seats, and is now the fourth largest party — or fifth largest party in the polls.

    So, he has asked for the Justice Ministry. Many people saw him as a kingmaker if it was going to be a close race. Now that it's clear Netanyahu is going to be the one forming the government, everyone expects that Moshe Kahlon will be the finance minister in a Netanyahu government.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Martin Seemungal for us tonight in Tel Aviv, thank you very much.

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