Israel election: Netanyahu may be able to build coalition with far-right allies, exit polls suggest

Opposition leader and Likud party Chairman Benyamin Netanyahu (Eyad Tawil - Anadolu Agency)

Bethan McKernan & Quique Kierszenbaum

The Guardian  /  November 1, 2022

Turnout for fifth general election in just four years reaches 23-year high as voters attempted to break political deadlock.

The former Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, may have scraped a razor-thin election win with the help of new far-right allies, according to exit polls in the country’s fifth vote in four years.

His Likud party is projected to win 30 or 31 seats, Israel’s public broadcaster and two private channels said when polls closed at 10pm (8pm GMT) on Tuesday. The long-time leader’s right-wing religious bloc is set to win 61 or 62 seats overall – just clinching a majority in the 120-seat Knesset.

Netanyahu appeared to strike a cautious tone in the early hours of Wednesday, saying that his party is “alive and kicking” but supporters would need to wait until final results arrived to celebrate.

The long-time premier’s main rival, incumbent prime minister Yair Lapid of the centrist Yesh Atid, was predicted to win 24 seats, with his camp at 54 seats overall. Another four seats would go to a pro-Palestinian rights alliance, which may or may not lend its support to Lapid’s centre-left bloc.

Worried about turnout among an exhausted electorate, all 36 parties engaged in an energetic last campaigning push to encourage voters to leave the house during the 15-hour voting window on Tuesday.

A surge for Netanyahu’s new partners, the right-wing extremist Religious Zionist party, might be what propels him to a third term as prime minister. The Religious Zionists appear to be set for unprecedented success, with 13 or 14 seats, up from six in the 2021 vote.

The polls are preliminary, however, and final results could change as votes are tallied in the coming hours. In Israel’s fragmented politics, no single party wins a parliamentary majority, and coalition-building is necessary to govern.

A struggling Palestinian nationalist party appeared to be approaching the electoral threshold, Israeli media reported an hour after the exit poll, which would give it four seats and erase Netanyahu’s narrow projected margin. Coalition horse-trading in the next few days could also paint a very different final picture.

Turnout on Tuesday was higher than it had been in decades in the high-stakes contest, as voters attempted to break the paralysing political deadlock of the past few years.

Election officials said that by 8pm local time (6pm GMT) – two hours before the polls closed – turnout stood at 66.3%, over five points higher than the same hour in the 2021 election and the highest since 1999.

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As with the four previous elections since 2019, Tuesday’s poll was largely a single-issue vote on whether the scandal-plagued Netanyahu is fit for office. Final polls published on Friday suggested that the race was once again too close to call, with neither the pro- nor anti-Netanyahu camps predicted to win a majority. Many Israelis were already bracing for a sixth election next year.

At lunchtime at a voting station in Talpiot Mizrach, a gentrifying Jewish neighbourhood in Jerusalem, many of those who had cast ballots said they had voted for Lapid. His coalition does not have a clear path to remaining in power unless turnout in the disillusioned Palestinian 20% of the population, still not fully counted, is high enough to counter the Netanyahu bloc’s slight edge.

“We are worried about a far-right government, and supporting Yesh Atid seems like the best way to keep them out,” said Laura Solomon, 55, who moved to Israel from the US last year. “Honestly though, it feels better voting here than in the US. Here there is at least a plurality of voices, and it feels like your vote really matters.”

Ze’ev, 66, a greengrocer from Jerusalem’s middle-class Beka neighbourhood, said he would be voting for Netanyahu’s Likud: “He’s experienced and successful. Other people are jealous and try to bring him down.”

The scene at a school in the Palestinian neighbourhood of Beit Safafa was much quieter: of 5,600 registered voters in the area, only 100 had showed up by lunchtime, said Rami Ghita, who voted for the Palestinian nationalist Ta’al party.

According to a forecast from the a Chord Center at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, based on samples from the Central Election Committee, Israeli Palestinian turnout stood at 44% at 8pm, which means Ta’al’s slate, a small anti-occupation voice in Israeli politics, should be able to clear the Knesset threshold.

Ghita’s friend Ibrahim Kamal said he was not going to vote. “They’re all thieves, it doesn’t make any difference,” he said. “Every election, one party pops up and incites hatred against the Palestinians to get votes. This time it’s Itamar Ben-Gvir.”

Perhaps the only major change in the political stalemate gripping Israel for the last four years is the rise of Ben-Gvir, the top candidate of the Religious Zionists.

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.

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

His rocketing popularity has horrified the Israeli mainstream as well as international allies: the US and the UAE have reportedly warned the 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.

Writing in the Yediot Ahronot daily on Tuesday, the columnist Nahum Barnea said such a right-wing coalition would threaten Israel’s future.

“Netanyahu nurtured [Ben Gvir and Bezalel Smotrich, the slate’s leader] and persuaded them to run together because he thought of them as the messiah’s donkey: he’s the messiah, and they will do his bidding. He may soon come to discover that they are the messiah, and he is their donkey … That same combination produced fascist movements in Europe,” he wrote.

The closing chapter of Lapid’s campaign had focused on urging voters to block the far right.

“These elections are [a choice] between the future and the past. So go out and vote today for our children’s future, for our country’s future,” he said after voting in his upmarket Tel Aviv neighbourhood.

Lapid was the architect of the “government of change”, a broad coalition of eight parties that banded together to remove Netanyahu from power in June 2021 but collapsed a year later because of infighting.

After the votes are tallied, the parties have nearly three months to thrash out a coalition configuration. If they cannot, Israel will head to yet another election.

Anna, 19, from Baka, cast a vote for the first time on Tuesday, opting for the Labour party, which governed the country for decades but is now part of a shrinking left-wing.

“I wasn’t going to sit this out but my friends with similar politics are still undecided on who to vote for,” she said. “It’s grating that my first election is the fifth one in four years. I hope we don’t have to keep doing this again and again.”

Tuesday’s election is being held amid a particularly bloody chapter of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, with the UN warning recently that 2022 is on course to be the deadliest year for Palestinians in the occupied West Bank since the organisation started tracking fatalities in 2005. A total of 25 people have been killed in attacks on Israel and Jewish settlements.

Bethan McKernan is Jerusalem correspondent for The Guardian

Quique Kierszenbaum in Jerusalem