Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu began working Wednesday to form a coalition government with nationalist and ultra-Orthodox Jewish parties after his conservative Likud party scored a resounding and surprising victory following a fractious election campaign.
Netanyahu said that he had spoken with the heads of five other parties that he hoped to bring into his government, adding that he hopes to complete the delicate task in "two to three weeks."
"The reality isn't waiting on us," Netanyahu said in a statement. "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."
Netanyahu's main rival -- Isaac Herzog of the centrist Zionist Union -- confirmed Wednesday that he had called the incumbent to congratulate him on his victory.
"I wished him luck, but let it be clear, the problems are the same problems, nothing has changed," said Herzog, who attempted to make economic and social issues the focus of the campaign in contrast to Netanyahu's focus on security. Herzog also vowed that his party would serve as "an alternative in every area" to Likud.
According to official results reported in Israeli media early Wednesday, Likud had won at least 29 seats in the 120-member Knesset, five more than Herzog's centrist Zionist Union. No other party had more than 14 seats, and a party or coalition must have at least 61 seats to form a government. A key bloc that could sew up Netanyahu's premiership is Kulanu, another centrist party lead by former government minister Moshe Kahlon that was projected to earn 10 seats in the latest figures.
Kahlon, whose campaign focused almost entirely on bread-and-butter economic issues, refused to take sides.
"I am loyal to my way," he told his supporters, saying he would work to form a government committed to social justice.
Likud significantly outperformed all the polls in the run-up to the election, all of which had predicted a second-place finish for the party behind the Zionist Union. Netanyahu claimed victory early Wednesday in a speech to cheering supporters at party headquarters in Tel Aviv.
"Against all the odds we obtained a great victory for the Likud," Netanyahu told the gathering. "Now we must form a strong and stable government that will ensure Israel's security and welfare," he added, in comments aimed at Kahlon.
At a rally of his supporters, Herzog had vowed to do his utmost to form a government and said he too had reached out to potential coalition partners. However, his effort to build a coalition was complicated by the possibility of having to rely on support from a new Arab alliance that was projected to capture 14 seats. But Arab parties have never sat in an Israeli coalition before.
Stav Shaffir, a leader of the Zionist Union, called the results a "clear vote of no confidence in Netanyahu."
Netanyahu had ruled out a "unity" government with the Zionist Union that would give him a broader coalition, and Herzog had also been cool to the idea without explicitly dismissing the prospect.
President Reuven Rivlin will now spend the next few days consulting with the various parties, whose leaders will all offer recommendations for who should be prime minister.
The final weeks of the campaign had become a referendum on Netanyahu, a towering figure in Israeli politics who has spent more time as Prime Minister than anyone except the country's founding father, David Ben-Gurion.
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 his most 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.
The Palestinians, fed up after years of deadlock with Netanyahu, are now likely to press ahead with their attempts to bring war crimes charges against Israel in the International Criminal Court.
"What Netanyahu is doing and stating are war crimes and if the international community wants peace it should make Netanyahu accountable for his acts," said Palestinian official Saeb Erekat. He said the Palestinian leadership will meet Thursday to discuss its next steps.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.