Israel’s ex-prime minister and Likud party leader Benjamin Netanyahu arrives early on November 2, 2022 after voting for national elections ended to address supporters at the campaign’s headquarters in Jerusalem. (Photo by RONALDO SCHEMIDT / AFP)
JERUSALEM, Undefined (AFP) – Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu edged closer to regaining power on Wednesday after forecast election results showed a majority government was within reach for the veteran far-right, although the outlook could change when ballots are counted.
If the exit polls pass, it would mark a dramatic comeback for Netanyahu, Israel’s longest-serving prime minister, whose Likud party may be poised to form a coalition with its ultra-Orthodox Jewish allies and a nascent far right.
“We are on the verge of a major victory,” Netanyahu said at a rally in Jerusalem early on Wednesday. “We don’t know the final results yet, but if the results are like the exit polls, I will form a national (right-wing) government.”
But his main rival, caretaker Prime Minister Yair Lapid, told his own supporters in Tel Aviv that “nothing is decided” and that his centrist Yesh Atid party will “wait patiently … for the final results”.
The margins appeared razor-thin, as might be expected in the bitterly divided nation holding its fifth election in less than four years. Previous elections have shown that minor adjustments during the official count can turn what appears to be a crucial result into another impasse.
But early signs have been positive for 73-year-old Netanyahu, who is on trial on corruption charges he denies.
Forecasts from three Israeli networks put Netanyahu’s Likud in first place with 30 to 32 seats.
That number, combined with the projected numbers for the far-right Religious Zionism alliance and the two ultra-Orthodox Jewish parties, would give the bloc supporting Netanyahu between 61 and 62 seats.
A clear bloc victory would end the brief reign of an eight-party coalition led by Lapid, which managed to oust Netanyahu last year before collapsing on its own.
– High voter turnout –
Lapid’s Yesh Atid was on course for an expected second place, with predictions putting him between 22 and 24 seats.
But exit polls put the prime minister’s ideologically divided alliance of Netanyahu’s rivals behind a majority.
Israel Democracy Institute head Yohanan Plesner warned of previous “discrepancies” between election exit polls and actual results.
In a climate of political deadlock, concerns about voter fatigue were widespread, but in the end, 71.3 percent of voters voted, the highest rate since 2015, official figures show.
– “Coalition of Extremists” –
Far-right leader Itamar Ben-Gvir would be key to helping Netanyahu return to power, with his religious Zionism bloc on track to an estimated 14 seats, according to exit polls, which would double his current presence in parliament .
Ben-Gvir, who wants Israel to annex all of the West Bank, said his rise was fueled by Israeli security concerns.
“It’s time we regained control of our land,” he said, repeating his call for the security services to use more force against the Palestinians.
Justice Minister Gideon Saar, a former Likud heavyweight who broke with Netanyahu and now leads his own party, warned early Tuesday that Israel risks electing a “coalition of extremists.”
Arab-Israeli lawmaker Aida Touma-Suleiman said Netanyahu may be on course to form a government “with fascists at his side.”
– “Growing Extremism” –
The vote came amid rising violence in Israel-annexed East Jerusalem and the occupied West Bank.
According to an AFP tally, at least 29 Palestinians and three Israelis were killed in both areas in October.
While many candidates cited security as a concern, none have committed to relaunching moribund peace talks with the Palestinians.
Palestinian Prime Minister Mohammed Shttayeh said the forecast outcome underscores “the growing extremism and racism in Israeli society.”
Lapid was the architect of the last coalition that brought an independent Arab party on board for the first time.
The unlikely alliance became possible after Mansour Abbas pulled his Raam party out of a joint list with other Arab-led parties, paving the way for him to join the coalition.
But Raam’s pioneering support for a coalition was not well received in Arab society, which makes up about 20 percent of Israel’s population.
Raam should return to parliament, according to exit polls, but Abbas accused Arab voters who are “passive” of giving Netanyahu a “gift,” potentially ushering in a government of politicians known for their virulent anti-Arab rhetoric are.
One focus of the night count was the Arab-led Balad party, which refuses to cooperate with the Israeli government.
The early count gave Balad just under 3.25 percent of the votes needed to secure the at least four seats in Parliament.
If they cross the line when all the ballots are tallied, it would reshuffle the tally and potentially deal a blow to Netanyahu’s chances.
© Agence France-Presse