Exit polls point to Netanyahu win in Israeli election
Exit polls in Israel indicate that former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his allies may have won enough seats to return to power in a nationalist and religious government after three and a half years of political gridlock.
The polls are preliminary and final results could change as votes are counted in the coming hours.
It was the fifth election in less than four years in Israel, all of which largely turned on Mr Netanyahu’s fitness to govern. The polls by three major Israeli TV stations indicated that Mr Netanyahu and his allies would capture the 61-seat majority in parliament required to form a new government.
The exit polls also showed Itamar Ben Gvir’s far-right Religious Zionism as the third-largest party. Mr Ben-Gvir is a disciple of a racist rabbi who was assassinated in the 1990s and has promised a hard line against the Palestinians.
Mr Ben-Gvir is expected to seek a Cabinet position as head of the ministry that oversees police. Just last month he brandished a handgun in a tense Palestinian neighbourhood of Jerusalem and called on the police to shoot Palestinian stone-throwers. He has also called for deportation of Arab politicians.
Mr Netanyahu, who is on trial for corruption, would be able to battle the charges as prime minister, improving his chances of avoiding conviction or jail time. His opponents view him as a grave threat to Israel’s democratic institutions and the rule of law.
Election officials said that by 8 pm local time — two hours before polls close — turnout stood at 66.3%, over five points higher than the same hour in the 2021 election and the highest at that point since 1999, when the main issue was the flagging peace process with the Palestinians.
Mr Netanyahu’s main rival is the man who helped oust him last year, the centrist caretaker Prime Minister Yair Lapid, who has warned against the nationalist and religious alliance that would emerge should Mr Netanyahu return to power.
“Vote for the state of Israel, and for the future of our children,” Mr Lapid said after casting his ballot in Tel Aviv.
After he cast his vote in the West Bank settlement where he lives, Mr Ben-Gvir promised that a vote for his party would bring about a “fully right-wing government” with Mr Netanyahu as prime minister.
Mr Ben-Gvir, who has been convicted of incitement for his anti-Arab rhetoric had seen his clout rise in the polls ahead of the vote and has demanded a key position should Mr Netanyahu form a government.
With former allies and proteges refusing to sit under him while he is on trial, Mr Netanyahu has been unable to form a viable majority government in the 120-seat Knesset, or parliament.
“I’m a little worried,” Mr Netanyahu said after voting. “I hope we end the day with a smile.”
Mr Netanyahu’s opponents are equally hamstrung in amassing the 61 seats needed to rule.
That impasse has mired Israel in an unprecedented political crisis that has eroded Israelis’ faith in their democracy, its institutions and their political leaders.
“People are tired of instability, of the fact that the government is not delivering the goods,” said Yohanan Plesner, who heads the Israel Democracy Institute, a Jerusalem think tank.
Buoyed by his followers’ support, Mr Netanyahu, 73, has rejected calls to step down by his opponents, who say someone on trial for fraud, breach of trust and accepting bribes cannot govern. Mr Netanyahu denies wrongdoing.
In Israel’s fragmented politics, no single party has ever won a parliamentary majority, and coalition-building is necessary to govern. Mr Netanyahu’s most likely path to the premiership requires an alliance with extreme nationalists and religious ultra-Orthodox parties.
These parties would demand key portfolios in a Netanyahu government, and some have promised to enact reforms that could make Mr Netanyahu’s legal woes disappear.
Mr Ben-Gvir’s ultranationalist Religious Zionism party has promised to support legislation that would alter the legal code, weaken the judiciary and could help Mr Netanyahu evade a conviction.
Critics have sounded the alarm over what they see as a threat to Israel’s democracy.
“If Netanyahu is triumphant,” wrote columnist Sima Kadmon in the Yediot Ahronot daily, “these will be the final days of the state of Israel as we have known it for 75 years.”
Mr Netanyahu was ousted last year after 12 years in power by the diverse coalition forged by Mr Lapid, Mr Netanyahu’s main challenger, but that coalition collapsed this spring because of infighting.
The centrist Mr Lapid, a former author and broadcaster who became premier as part of a power-sharing agreement, has portrayed himself as an honest and scandal-free change from the polarising Netanyahu.
After the votes are counted, the parties have nearly three months to form a government. If they cannot, Israel will head to yet another election.
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