Netanyahu scents election victory with far-right allies
Veteran Israeli hawk Benjamin Netanyahu appeared on the cusp of returning to power Wednesday, with initial election results showing his alliance with the extreme right taking a narrow lead.
With around 84 percent of the vote counted at 0755 GMT, according to the Central Elections Committee, Netanyahu could be set for a dramatic comeback.
Addressing supporters who chanted “King of Israel”, Netanyahu said his Likud party had received “a huge vote of confidence”.
As Israel’s longest-serving leader seeks to make a comeback, initial results put his right-wing bloc ahead after the country’s fifth election in four years.
Caretaker Prime Minister Yair Lapid — the architect of the coalition which ousted Netanyahu last year — cautioned that “nothing is decided”.
“(We) will wait patiently… for the final results,” he told crowds backing his centrist Yesh Atid party.
While Israelis are split broadly between those who support or oppose Netanyahu, the former premier has been buoyed by votes for his extreme-right allies.
The Religious Zionism bloc of Itamar Ben-Gvir has made major gains and is expected to emerge as the third-largest party, behind Yesh Atid.
The controversial Ben-Gvir heralded the party’s showing as a “great achievement”, which is expected to hand the right-wing a majority in the 120-seat parliament.
The margins appear wafer-thin, however, and previous elections have shown that slight adjustments during the count can make or break a government.
A number of smaller parties opposed to Netanyahu are teetering on the edge of the threshold required to win seats in parliament and could yet change the political arithmetic.
– ‘Pins and needles’ –
The early signs were positive for the 73-year-old Netanyahu, who is on trial on corruption charges that he denies.
The official count put his Likud on track for a first-place finish, with 31 seats, ahead of Yesh Atid’s 24.
Those figures, combined with current tallies for Religious Zionism and the two ultra-Orthodox Jewish parties backing Netanyahu, would give the right-wing bloc 65 seats.
Such an outright victory would end the short reign of the motley coalition, which succeeded in ending Netanyhau’s record reign last year.
Yael Shomer, a senior lecturer in politics at Tel Aviv University, told AFP the count was “on pins and needles”.
“It could be on a few thousand votes” to impact seats and change the final result, she said.
Despite Israel’s election fatigue, voters came out in force and pushed turnout to its highest rate since 2015, topping 71 percent, according to official figures.
– ‘Masters of our country’ –
Whatever the final result, Ben-Gvir was described as “the big winner of this election” by politics lecturer Julia Elad-Strenger.
“He took from the haredim (ultra-Orthodox), from the Likud, of course new young voters and people who had noone to vote for,” Elad-Strenger, from Israel’s Bar-Ilan University, told AFP.
The tireless campaigning of Ben-Gvir could see his alliance more than double its current presence in parliament, picking up 14 seats.
The 46-year-old, who has his eye on the public security portfolio, wants Israel to use more force against Palestinians.
“It’s time we go back to being masters of our country,” he said following the vote.
Arab-Israeli lawmaker Aida Touma-Suleiman said Netanyahu might be on track to form a government “with fascists by his side”.
The vote was held against a backdrop of soaring violence across Israeli-annexed east Jerusalem and the occupied West Bank.
At least 29 Palestinians and three Israelis were killed in the territories in October, according to an AFP tally.
As the votes were being counted on Wednesday, Israeli troops killed a Palestinian the army said seriously wounded a soldier with a van in the occupied West Bank.
While many candidates cited security as a concern, none pledged to revive moribund peace talks with the Palestinians.
Palestinian prime minister Mohammad Shtayyeh said the projected election results highlighted “growing extremism and racism in Israeli society”.
– Arab-Israeli parties split –
The coalition led by Lapid brought together the right and left, held together by bringing an Arab party into the fold for the first time.
The unlikely alliance was made possible after Mansour Abbas pulled his Raam party from a united slate with other Arab-led parties, paving the way for him to join the coalition.
But Raam’s pioneering support for a coalition was not viewed positively across Arab society, which makes up around 20 percent of Israel’s population.
On Wednesday morning, it remained unclear whether Raam would pass the threshold to hold onto its four seats.
For Shomer, the anti-Netanyahu bloc crucially failed to ensure alliances of smaller left-wing and Arab-led parties ahead of the vote.
“If Lapid is the head of the centre-left bloc, he should have done like Benjamin Netanyahu and made sure all the parties under his bloc were in the best situation they could be,” she said.