Israel election: Exit polls put Netanyahu on brink of comeback with right-wing allies

Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife Sara cast their ballots in Jerusalem (AP)

Emily Atkinson & Alastair Jamieson

The Independent  /  November 1, 2022

Israel’s longest-serving premier is on trial on corruption charges, which he denies.

Benjamin Netanyahu and right-wing allies may have won enough seats to return to power in a nationalist and religious government in Israel, early exit poll results suggested on Tuesday night.

Israelis voted in the country’s fifth election in less than four years, hoping to break the political deadlock which has paralyzed the country.

Polls by three major Israeli TV stations indicated that ex-PM Netanyahu and his allies would capture the 61-seat majority in parliament required to form a new government, but the result was on a knife edge.

His main rival is the man who helped oust him from power last year, centrist caretaker prime minister Yair Lapid.

“Vote for the state of Israel, and for the future of our children,” Mr Lapid said after casting his ballot in the Tel Aviv neighbourhood where he lives.

Election officials said that by 4pm local time, turnout stood at 47.5 per cent, the highest at that time since 1999.

With another stalemate looming, attention has largely turned to who Mr Netanyanhu might be able to form a coalition with and a powerful new player is threatening to shake things up as a potential coalition kingmaker.

Itamar Ben-Gvir, a leading far-right politician, and his Religious Zionist Party has surged in opinion polls recently and will be seeking an even harder line against the Palestinians if he helps propel Mr Netanyahu to victory.

Israel’s longest-serving premier, Mr Netanyahu is on trial on corruption charges, which he denies, but his right-wing Likud party is still expected to finish as the largest in parliament.

“There’s a feeling of despair at all these elections,” Hagit Cohen, a 64-year-old social worker from Tel Aviv, told the Associated Press.

Typically a supporter of the centre-left parties, she has this time cast her vote for caretaker prime minister Yair Lapid, whose centrist Yesh Atid party will likely be the second-largest after Likud.

Mr Netanyahu was photographed casting his ballot alongside his wife Sara. “I hope we will finish the day with a smile but it’s up to the people,” he told reporters as he voted in Jerusalem.

The current ballot comes as a result of the collapse of Naftali Bennett’s government in June, a premiership which became terminal in the wake of a series of defections from the governing coalition created by centrist and Arab parties.

The patchwork bloc, which has disagreed on most issues, from Israeli occupation to LGBT+ rights, has been led by Mr Lapid for the intervening period.

The campaign, which opened weeks after a brief conflict with the militant Islamic Jihad group in Gaza in August, has also unrolled against a backdrop of months of violence in the occupied West Bank, with near-daily raids and clashes.

However, the conflict has had little direct impact on the campaign, which has been overshadowed by the bloated personality of Mr Netanyahu, whose legal battles have fed the stalemate blocking Israel’s political system since he was indicted on bribery, fraud and breach of trust charges in 2019.

“People are tired of instability, of the fact that the government is not delivering the goods,” said Yohanan Plesner, a former legislator who now heads the Israel Democracy Institute, a Jerusalem think tank.

As Mr Netanyahu’s legal problems have continued, Mr Ben-Gvir and fellow far-right leader Bezalel Smotrich have eaten into Likud’s traditional hawkish base and the once-marginal Religious Zionist Party is now set to be the third-largest in parliament.

Mr Ben-Gvir – a former member of Kach, a group on Israeli and US terrorist watch lists – has moderated some earlier positions, but the prospect of his joining a coalition government led by Mr Netanyahu risks alarming Washington.

Mr Lapid has campaigned on diplomatic advances with countries including Turkey and Lebanon as well as on a strong performance by the Israeli economy, which has weathered the turbulent global environment in relatively good shape.

“I hope this time it will be final,” said Avi Shlush, a voter in Tel Aviv. “But it will not be final. We are heading to another election.”