Benjamin Netanyahu thanks voters as exit poll puts him ahead in Israel election

Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu (Nir Elias - Reuters)

Bethan McKernan

The Guardian  /  November 2, 2022 

Prime minister Yair Lapid says nothing is final until ‘last envelope is counted’ as Likud’s right-wing coalition partners see support surge.

Former Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu has thanked voters for a “huge vote of confidence” as his right-wing religious bloc extended its lead with around 60% of all votes counted in the country’s fifth election in four years.

His Likud party has not yet performed as well as expected, but a surge in support for his new far-right allies, the Religious Zionists, and what appears to be a poor showing for two pro-Palestinian rights parties and the left wing Meretz party, means the scandal-plagued former leader is at present the most likely candidate to be able to form a government in the aftermath of Tuesday’s election.

Netanyahu’s main opponent, incumbent prime minister Yair Lapid, insisted that the race was not done yet, telling supporters on Wednesday morning that “until the last envelope is counted, nothing is over and nothing is final”. With votes in the left-wing city of Tel Aviv still to be tallied, his broad anti-Netanyahu camp, which managed to oust the former leader from power last year, was set to win just 54 seats in the 120-seat Knesset, as exit polls suggested.

The final results could swing as votes are counted. In Israel’s fragmented politics, no single party wins a parliamentary majority, and coalition-building is necessary to govern. Negotiations between parties can take weeks.

As with the four previous elections since 2019, Tuesday’s poll was largely a single-issue vote on whether the scandal-ridden Netanyahu is fit for office.

Palestinian citizens of Israel, who make up 20% of Israel’s population, were predicted to be a deciding factor in blocking his return to office. This time around their vote was split among three different factions, meaning many votes were wasted.

Speaking a few hours after the exit poll was made public, suggesting a narrow majority for his camp, Netanyahu said that his right-wing religious bloc was “alive and kicking”.

“We are on the brink of a very large victory,” Netanyahu told supporters at his Likud party headquarters. “The people want power, not weakness.”

Prime minister Yair Lapid did not concede and told supporters that he would “continue to fight for Israel to be a Jewish and democratic, liberal and progressive state.”

The night’s strongest showing was from Netanyahu’s new partners, the far-right Religious Zionists, which emerged as the third-largest party. The party’s top candidate, Itamar Ben-Gvir, celebrated at an all-male campaign gathering in Jerusalem, where supporters waved Israeli flags and chanted “Death to terrorists.”

The Religious Zionists appear to be set for unprecedented success, with 13 or 14 seats, up from six in the 2021 vote. The surge in support for the right wing party might be the key to propelling Netanyahu to a third term as prime minister.

Ben-Gvir is a former follower of the banned Kach terrorist group, with a conviction for inciting racism. He has promised to support legislation that would alter the legal code, which could help Netanyahu evade a conviction in his corruption trial.

Netanyahu has faced accusations he gave preferential treatment to a major Israeli telecom company in exchange for positive articles on its news site, and that he received gifts worth hundreds of thousands of dollars from wealthy friends.

As a senior member of a right-wing coalition government, Ben-Gvir has said he would also lobby for the deportation of “disloyal” Palestinian citizens of Israel.

The apparent success of the far-right party makes peace with the Palestinians less likely than ever and sets the stage for possible conflict with Israel’s international partners. The US and the UAE have reportedly warned Likud that giving the Religious Zionists cabinet minister roles would damage bilateral relations. Netanyahu, however, has said such a choice cannot be made by outsiders.

Bethan McKernan is Jerusalem correspondent for The Guardian