Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on his way to fourth mandate after his Likud party scores decisive victory in general elections

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu hails victory in a speech at Likud campaign headquarters early in the morning of March 18, 2015Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu hails victory in a speech at Likud campaign headquarters early in the morning of March 18, 2015

Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is on his way to a fourth mandate after elections for the 20th Knesset, the 120-member Israeli parliament, took a dramatic turn in the early morning hours on Wednesday.

With almost all the ballots counted for Israel’s general election held Tuesday, Netanyahu’s Likud scored a decisive victory over the rival Zionist Union party

99% of votes have been counted from a total of 4,223,057 and Likud is in first place with 23.29 percent. Zionist Union is trailing far behind in second place with 18.76 percent, almost 5 percentage points behind Likud.

According to the official up-to-the-minute tally, Likud wins 30 seats while Zionist Union comes in second at 24 seats. A far cry from the virtual dead heat that television exit polls had reported Tuesday evening.

The parties that follow are Joint Arab List (14), Yesh Atid (11), Kulanu (10,  Bayit Yehudi (8), Shas (7), United Torah Judaism (6), Yisrael Beitenu (6) and Meretz (4).

Eli Yishai’s Yahad party does not pass the electoral threshold (3.25 %).

Benjamin Netanyahu released a statement early Wednesday morning inviting potential coalition partners to immediately enter talks for the swift formation of what is expected to be a nationalist government.

“The reality isn’t waiting on us,” Netanyahu said just hours after it became clear that his Likud party had scored a decisive victory over Zionist Union in Tuesday’s poll. “Reality isn’t taking a break. The citizens of Israel expect us to quickly put together a leadership that will work for the sake of the country’s security, economy, and society as we promised to do, and that is what I will do.”

The premier said that he had already spoken with the heads of parties that he plans to invite into his coalition, including Bayit Yehudi chief Naftali Bennett, Kulanu’s Moshe Kahlon, Yisrael Beitenu head Avigdor Liberman, Shas leader Aryeh Deri, and United Torah Judaism representatives Yaakov Litzman and Moshe Gafni.

“The Prime Minister plans to immediately begin forming a government in order to complete the task within two to three weeks,” he said.

“I’m proud of the Israeli people because at the moment of truth they knew to differentiate between challenge and nonsense and they took up the challenge,” he  said.

Netanyahu said that his government will work to improve on “the most important things for all of us, which genuine security and socioeconomic welfare.”