Israel’s former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu is in pole position to emerge victorious from Tuesday’s parliamentary elections, according to exit polls that put his rightwing bloc on course for a razor-thin majority.
Polls by Israel’s three main television channels, released after voting closed, forecast that a bloc combining Netanyahu’s Likud party, the extreme-right Religious Zionism grouping and two ultra-Orthodox parties that have traditionally backed Netanyahu would win 61-62 seats.
The Yesh Atid party of prime minister Yair Lapid and several smaller allies were forecast to win 54-55 seats between them, while the non-aligned Arab Hadash-Ta’al grouping was predicted four mandates.
Exit polls in previous Israeli elections have not always been accurate, and final results could change as vote are counted through the night, especially if a small Arab party currently forecast to fall below the electoral threshold were to clear it.
But if they prove correct, Netanyahu’s bloc would hold a thin majority in Israel’s 120-seat Knesset, and he would have a path back to power less than 18 months after being ousted by a sprawling eight-party coalition.
“We’re alive and kicking,” Netanyahu said, according to Israel’s Channel 13 TV station.
Tuesday’s election is Israel’s fifth in three-and-a-half years of political stalemate, and, like the previous four, was widely seen as a referendum on the 73-year-old Netanyahu, a divisive figure who has ruled Israel for 15 of the past 26 years.
For his supporters, the pugnacious former prime minister is a guarantor of stability in a volatile region. “He is a smart person . . . and he has got crazy [amounts] of experience,” said Ze’ev, a 66-year-old who voted for Netanyahu in Jerusalem. “People are jealous of him because he is successful, and just want to bring him down.”
But for his critics, Netanyahu, who has spent the past two years battling allegations of corruption, and his extreme-right allies, who have proposed sweeping changes to Israel’s judiciary, represent a threat to democratic institutions.
“Netanyahu is ready to bend all standards of good governance to get to power,” said Laurie, a 69-year-old who voted for Lapid’s Yesh Atid.
Netanyahu has dismissed the charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust, on which he is standing trial, as a witch hunt. But, in combination with feuds with former allies, they have limited his options for coalition building, and left his fortunes increasingly dependent on the far right, whose support has surged over the past year.
Much of that increase has been driven by Itamar Ben Gvir, a once-fringe ultranationalist previously convicted of incitement to racism, along with Bezalel Smotrich, who leads the Religious Zionism grouping.
The prospect of a coalition involving Ben Gvir has prompted rumblings of concern from some US politicians, and during last year’s election cycle, Netanyahu said Ben Gvir — who used to keep a picture of Baruch Goldstein, an extremist who massacred 29 Palestinians in a mosque in 1994, in his home — was not fit to be a minister.
But as the popularity of Ben Gvir — who said over the weekend that he would demand to be public security minister in a future government — has grown, Netanyahu has changed tack, and conceded that Ben Gvir could serve in his cabinet.
Netanyahu’s allies have sought to play down the influence Ben Gvir would hold in a coalition with Likud. But other observers are sceptical about the extent to which Netanyahu will be able to control him.
“Ben Gvir is not going to be playing to Netanyahu’s tune. He has everything to gain by being more radical,” said one western diplomat. “So it will be hard for Netanyahu, even with his experience and skill, to control this guy. I don’t think that paying him off with a ministerial rank will be enough.”