Israeli Benjamin Netanyahu holds a slight edge in exit polls

TEL AVIV — Former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu maintained an edge over his rivals in exit polls for Israel’s fifth election in four years, but projections showed his lead was marginal and the outcome could change as more votes are counted.

Netanyahu’s Likud party is set to win 30 seats in Israel’s parliament, or Knesset, according to figures from an exit poll from Israel’s Kan public broadcaster, updated just before 1 a.m. Wednesday morning Israel time. . His bloc of right-wing and religious allies is expected to win 62 of the 120 seats in the Knesset.

That gives him an advantage over current centrist Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid, who has pledged to form a government without Mr Netanyahu and whose Yesh Atid party is expected to have won 23 seats, according to Kan. Mr Lapid’s bloc was expected to win 54 seats, according to the latest exit poll.

Supporters of Benjamin Netanyahu’s party on the eve of the vote displayed a banner saying “only Likud can do it.”

Photo:
menahem kahana/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images

Early Wednesday morning, Mr. Netanyahu took the stage in front of a crowd of jubilant supporters in Jerusalem to tell them that they were “on the cusp of a very big victory”.

“We have to wait for the final results. But one thing is already clear: our way, the way of Likud, has proven itself,” Netanyahu said.

About 71.3% of eligible voters turned out to vote, the highest tally since 2015, according to Israel’s Central Elections Committee. As of 6 a.m. in Israel, only about 34 percent of the votes had been counted, making the results smooth.

Mr. Netanyahu promised voters that he would form what would be the most right-wing and religious coalition in its history. It would include an alliance of far-right and religious lawmakers proposing tough measures to quell Palestinian unrest in the West Bank and pass legislation to weaken Israel’s justice system. The co-leader of this alliance is far-right lawmaker Itamar Ben-Gvir, whose Religious Zionism party won 15 seats, according to Kan, making it the third largest party in the Knesset.

Mr. Netanyahu has pledged to make Mr. Ben-Gvir a minister if he forms a government. Mr. Ben-Gvir is asking for control of the Ministry of Public Security, which would give him control of the country’s police.

Itamar Ben-Gvir’s Religious Zionism party is expected to win the third most seats.

Photo:
AMIR COHEN/REUTERS

Ben-Gvir, who was convicted in 2007 of inciting racism and supporting a terrorist organization, was best known in Israel for defending Israelis accused of violent attacks on Palestinians in court, before going on to make themselves known over the past year on a law-and-order campaign. He told voters he hopes to make Israelis safer by deporting people he believes are undermining the Jewish state, executing terrorists and granting immunity to Israeli troops and police who shoot and kill Arabs who are seen holding stones or Molotov cocktails before throwing them.

On Mr. Ben-Gvir’s election night in Jerusalem, activists enthusiastically cheered the poll results, dancing in circles while waving blue and white Israeli flags.

“It feels like Independence Day,” said Alon Hazon, 47, from Holon in central Israel. “We are ready to take back our country.”

Arab citizens of Israel have expressed fear about Mr. Ben-Gvir. Riham Abu Nar, 19, who works at a kindergarten in Jaffa, said she was voting for the Arab-led Hadash-Ta’al party to prevent Mr Ben-Gvir from coming to power.

“Itamar is really racist,” said Ms. Abu Nar, who is an Arab citizen of Israel. “He is obsessed with Arabs. Our lives will be in danger if he is in government.

Mr. Ben-Gvir denied being a racist.

The Islamist Ra’am party, which broke a taboo to join the previous government, won five seats in the Kan ballot, while the Arab-led alliance of Hadash-Ta’al won four seats.

Mr Netanyahu’s apparent parliamentary majority could be lost if the Palestinian nationalist party Balad crosses the electoral threshold of 3.25% of the total vote. According to Kan’s exit poll, Balad has 3.1% of the total vote.

Prime Minister Yair Lapid leads a centrist secular party allied with right-wing, left-wing and Arab factions.

Photo:
Ariel Schalit/Associated Press

Israelis remain divided on whether Mr Netanyahu – who served as the country’s longest-serving prime minister and was ousted last year – should return to power. He is loved by a large number of Israelis, many of whom refer to him as “the king of Israel”. But he hasn’t been able to lead his Likud party to a decisive victory since 2015, as Israelis on the right and left remain torn over whether he should be prime minister as he stands on trial for corruption.

“Our previous good and strong governments were led by Bibi,” said Likud voter Avigayil Neuman, 28, of Jerusalem’s Rehavia neighborhood, referring to Mr Netanyahu by his nickname.

“I’m fed up with right-wing governments led by Netanyahu,” said Dana Lenzini, a teacher from Tel Aviv. She voted for Mr Lapid’s Yesh Atid party, saying he had done a good job in the four months he was prime minister.

Netanyahu’s corruption trial, now more than two years old, was a rallying cry for his opponents in the past, but does not loom as large in this election, with prosecutors suffering setbacks in the room of hearing. Still, the trial underscores the stakes for Mr. Netanyahu, who denies any wrongdoing. His potential coalition allies say they will pass legislation that will shield him from prosecution. He denies seeking re-election to escape trial.

The fragmented nature of the Israeli political landscape means that parties must form coalitions to govern.

Photo:
Daniel Rolider/Getty Images

Mr. Lapid, who leads a centrist party that is secular but allied with right-wing, left-wing and Arab factions, warned voters that women, LGBT Israelis and Arab citizens all risk having their rights diminished if Mr. Netanyahu and its right-religious coalitions are brought to power. Mr. Lapid presented the election as a choice over Israel’s future as a democratic state.

“I know they’ve declared the end of democracy a thousand times before,” Lapid said on Wednesday. “But this time it’s not a threat. This is the election promise of Israel’s third largest party and opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu is entirely dependent on them.

Aviv Bertele, 42, who runs a Hebrew-language school in Tel Aviv, said he voted for the left-wing Meretz party despite being more right-wing because he wants lawmakers who can fight back. people like Mr. Ben-Gvir, whose alliance he fears will limit the rights of LGBT people and women.


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“As a member of the LGBT community and as someone who considers themselves a feminist, I think we owe it to ourselves to protect ourselves from fascist forces like Itamar Ben-Gvir,” he said. “These elections are crucial in determining whether Israel will go liberal or become something like Iran or Saudi Arabia.”

The fifth-round result is expected to become clearer on Wednesday, when Israel’s election committee completes most of the vote count. According to Israeli law, parties must obtain at least 3.25% of the vote to enter the Knesset. The fragmented nature of the Israeli political landscape means that parties must form coalitions to secure a parliamentary majority and govern. The process may drag on for weeks or even months. Analysts do not rule out a sixth election.

In the coming days, Israeli President Isaac Herzog will choose the leader he thinks has the best chance of forming a governing coalition, usually the party that wins the most seats or receives the most recommendations to form a government by his fellow legislators. This person has six weeks to try to cobble together a majority coalition that includes support from smaller parties.

Write to Dov Lieber at [email protected]

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. Israeli Benjamin Netanyahu holds slight advantage in the polls exit from the elections

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