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JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Hawkish Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu emerged the bruised winner of Israel’s election on Tuesday, claiming victory despite unexpected losses to resurgent center-left challengers.

Exit polls showed the Israeli leader’s Likud party, yoked with the ultra-nationalist Yisrael Beitenu group, would still be the biggest bloc in the 120-member assembly with 31 seats, 11 fewer than the 42 they held in the previous parliament.

If the exit polls compiled by three local broadcasters prove correct – and they normally do in Israel – Netanyahu would be on course for a third term
in office, perhaps leading a hardline coalition that would promote Jewish settlement on occupied land.

The 63-year-old Israeli leader promised during his election campaign to focus on tackling Iran’s nuclear ambitions if he won, shunting Palestinian peacemaking well down the agenda despite Western concern to keep the quest for a solution alive.