Netanyahu tipped to return as Israel PM after far right surge

Supporters of Israeli far-right legislator and head of "Jewish Power" party, Itamar Ben-Gvir, wave Israeli flags and cheer as they celebrate his strong election performance.

Lydd (Lod), Israel – At the Lydd (Lod) branch of the Arab-Jewish Hadash party, six activists sat in a semicircle of plastic chairs watching the exit polls of the fifth Israeli election in just under four years on the large TV screen on the wall.

The three older men smoked water pipes as they waited patiently to hear whether Benjamin Netanyahu, who has been prime minister longer than anyone else in Israel but is now on trial for corruption, and the Palestinian-hating hardliner, Itamar Ben-Gvir, would be the ones to form the country’s next government.

The numbers rolled out and the good news was that their slate, Hadash-Ta’al, had made it over the threshold to get into parliament, known as the Knesset, and would probably get four seats.

But the tally gave Netanyahu’s bloc a majority, with an expected 61 or 62 of the 120 Knesset seats, enough to form a government.

Outgoing Prime Minister Yair Lapid’s centrist bloc was projected to get 54-55 seats. And the anti-democratic, anti-liberal, anti-Palestinian, homophobic ‘Religious Zionism’ slate, whose leaders advocate undermining the Israeli justice system, creating loyalty tests for Palestinian citizens, and expelling those deemed ‘disloyal’, looked set to become Netanyahu’s main partner. The far-right group is projected to win at least 14 seats compared with six in the last elections.

“The extremism in this country is rising,” said Anwar Ghazal, 53, as he watched the screen. “It’s dangerous for the Arabs. That’s what we tried to explain in all our campaigning, they need to vote. Netanyahu is as dangerous. The situation is not good. It’s terrible.”

Supporters of Israeli far-right legislator and head of "Jewish Power" party, Itamar Ben-Gvir, wave Israeli flags and cheer as they celebrate his strong election performance.
Supporters of far-right Israeli legislator Itamar Ben-Gvir celebrated as exit polls showed a surge in support  [Oren Ziv/AP Photos]

“I expected this,” said Ihab Abukrubeia, 30, looking at Ben-Gvir’s people dancing on the TV screen, waving Israeli flags as big as people. “I think the majority of the Jews here are extremist right-wing. That’s why we get Likud and Ben-Gvir with so many seats.”

Palestinians are not alone in their fear of Ben-Gvir and the changes he hopes to make.

“If the results we are seeing this evening hold true, the coalition that will form the next government is poised to propose a series of reforms that would seek to politicise the judiciary and weaken the checks and balances that exist between the branches of government and serve as fundamental components of Israeli democracy,” said Yohanan Plesner, president of the Israel Democracy Institute.

Their plans include removing the offence of fraud and breach of trust — for which Netanyahu is on trial — from the criminal code, stripping the High Court of Justice of its ability to strike down unconstitutional laws and giving parliamentarians control over the selection of judges.

“While some of these proposals seem aimed at extracting former Prime Minister Netanyahu from his ongoing criminal trial, there is much more at stake. If implemented, these proposals would threaten the independence of our judiciary and could expose Israel’s political system to systematic corruption.”

‘Nothing is over’

Some Jewish-Israeli commentators blamed the outcome on Palestinian citizens of Israel for not voting. The Palestinian turnout was lower than in the past, while the Jewish turnout was higher than previously.

Election authorities said the overall turnout was 66.3 percent at 8pm local time (18:00 GMT), the highest since 1999.

“What most annoys me is this arrogance,” said Maha Al-Nakib, another activist at the Hadash office. “They blamed the Arabs for not going out to vote. Why are we always responsible for the s**t — sorry for my language — of the country? Why isn’t the Israeli left-wing responsible? It’s chutzpah,” she said, using the Yiddish word for ‘cheeky’.

An Israeli Palestinian woman votes in a school classroom that has been turned into a polling station.
Turnout overall was the highest since 1999, according to election authorities, although the number of Palestinians who turned out to vote was lower than before [Ammar Awad/Reuters]

The situation could still change, however, and exit polls have been wrong in the past. If the Balad party, another Palestinian grouping, manages to pass the threshold of 3.25 percent of the total votes, that would change the distribution of all the votes.

“Nothing is over” until all the votes are counted, Lapid told supporters at a post-election event.

“Every Israeli needs to know tonight that we’ll continue to fight for Israel to be a Jewish and democratic state, liberal and advanced.”

But if exit polls are right, it will be Netanyahu, once again, who will be in a position to form a government — one that could be more stable than any since 2019, the year when Netanyahu was indicted.

Election authorities are expected to complete the count later this week.

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