Israelis woke Wednesday to preliminary election results that augured a return to power for former PM Benjamin Netanyahu and stunning gains by the far right — a sign of a growing extremist current in Jewish Israeli society that opponents and analysts warn threatens the country’s democracy.
With 84 percent of ballots counted as of 10 a.m. local time Wednesday, Netanyahu’s right-wing bloc looked poised to pick up 65 seats, well beyond the 61 needed to form a majority in Israel’s 120-member Knesset. But the results will probably change as more ballots are tallied. The final count for Tuesday’s contest is not expected to be published until Thursday afternoon or Friday morning.
Exit polls Tuesday night initially indicated a slimmer victory for Netanyahu, projecting his bloc of parties would secure 61 or 62 seats. The current government is helmed by centrist caretaker Prime Minister Yair Lapid, leader of the Yesh Atid party, whose bloc was projected to get 54 or 55 seats.
Speaking to supporters at a campaign party overnight in Jerusalem, Netanyahu said he was “on the cusp of a huge victory,” the Times of Israel reported.
“If the actual results reflect the exit polls, I’ll set up a national government that will look after all the citizens of Israel,” he pledged, calling the projected results a “huge expression of faith.”
Overall turnout in the election, Israel’s fifth in less than four years, stood at 71.3 percent, according to Israel’s Central Election Committee. Despite widespread exasperation with seemingly endless election cycles, Israelis voted at a rate about 4 percentage points higher than last year’s turnout.
If the final vote tally aligns with projections, Israeli’s president will task Netanyahu with forming a government. The composition of that government is not set in stone, but it is expected to include Likud, the far-right Religious Zionism and ultra-Orthodox parties Shas and United Torah Judaism.
Netanyahu’s party, Likud, appears set to remain the largest party in the Knesset, with exit polls giving the party between 30 and 32 seats. At the Likud election party in Jerusalem in the early hours of Wednesday, supporters chanted “Bibi is back!” and “Bibi, king of Israel,” using a popular nickname for Netanyahu.
That scenario would bring the polarizing political leader — who led the government for 12 years before an unlikely coalition of opponents ousted him in 2021 — back to the prime minister’s office, this time with allies significantly further to the right.
The Religious Zionist coalition led by Bezalel Smotrich and Itamar Ben Gvir appears poised to become the third-largest party in the Knesset, a sea change in Israeli politics that reflects the growing appeal of a once-fringe ultranationalist movement.
“Should the polls reflect the real results, it means that we have an extreme right-wing government in Israel,” Gayil Talshir, a political scientist at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, said. “The extremist right is here to stay, and I think its becoming the third-largest party in the Israeli parliament is a sign of concern for all those in favor of democracy.”
Ben Gvir has roots in the overtly racist Kach party founded by a radical American rabbi, Meir Kahane, and banned by Israel. He built his career defending Jewish settlers accused of violence and has advocated expelling “disloyal” citizens, including leftists and Palestinians, from Israel. A photograph of Baruch Goldstein, who killed 29 Muslim worshipers in a 1994 mosque massacre in Hebron, used to hang in Ben Gvir’s living room, and Ben Gvir himself has been prosecuted for inciting violence multiple times.
Supporters told The Washington Post on Tuesday that they voted for Ben Gvir because he backs formal annexation of the occupied Palestinian territories and advocated killing, rather than jailing, alleged Palestinian militants.
The turnout in Tuesday’s election shows that the Religious Zionist coalition did “a very good job in terms of the turnout in the periphery” of the country and among voters in lower socioeconomic echelons, Talshir said.
“Demography also plays a role here, because 200,000 new voters voted in this election, and as we know, the ultra-Orthodox and the Religious Zionist communities have many more kids per family,” Talshir said.
Ben Gvir’s party’s performance in Tuesday’s election puts the politician, previously considered a political untouchable, squarely in the mainstream.
Ben Gvir has demanded to be appointed public security minister, which oversees the police. Opponents, including some members of Israel’s security establishment, have warned that such a move would be dangerous to Israel, raising the prospect of a major escalation of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
The National Unity Party, led by Defense Minister Benny Gantz, said ahead of the election that as head of public security, Ben Gvir would “set fire to the country from the inside.”
Lapid’s Yesh Atid has won about 18 percent of the vote so far, and exit polls projected the party would end up with between 22 and 24 seats. His campaign for the premiership relied on securing the support of smaller parties, and all eyes have been on whether the Jewish left-wing Meretz and Labor parties, as well as the three Arab parties, would pass the 3.25 percent threshold required to enter the Knesset.
Netanyahu’s apparent victory also puts him in a position to undermine his ongoing corruption trial.
His opponents have warned that he and his allies intend to hollow out Israel’s judiciary. Ahead of the election, Religious Zionism leader Smotrich presented a plan to overhaul the judicial system that would give the Knesset the power to override Supreme Court rulings and overturn a law against breach of trust that could lead to the cancellation of some charges against Netanyahu.
According to the most recent official count, Labor has narrowly passed the threshold and was expected to secure at least four seats. Meretz remained below the threshold.
Turnout among Palestinian citizens of Israel, who typically vote at lower rates than Jewish Israelis, was closely watched as a potentially decisive factor in the election. Tuesday’s election marked the first since an Arab party — the Islamist party Ra’am — had served in Israel’s governing coalition. Ahead of the election, Palestinian voters expressed disillusionment with Arab politicians and a Jewish-dominated political system they say marginalizes their communities.
Last-minute pushes by politicians and Palestinian Arab organizations to get out the vote appear to have paid off — the voting rate among Arab citizens was estimated to stand around 54 percent, according to an analysis by the aChord center at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
That figure would represent a 10-percent increase from the last election. But with only two of three parties — Ra’am and the leftist Hadash-Ta’al coalition — currently passing the threshold, Arab parties may end up with one fewer seat than before.
The result is a consequence of the fragmentation of the Arab political scene, Talshir said. Another party, the nationalist Balad, broke away from a joint list and attracted voters unwilling to cooperate with Jewish parties.
Balad saw about a fourfold increase in the number of votes it received compared to the last election, Talshir said, a sign of its growing support among younger Arab voters. That support has not yet translated into enough votes to cross the threshold, however, according to the latest count, which put the party at 3 percent of the vote.
But the stronger-than-expected turnout in Palestinian Arab communities drew baseless allegations of fraud from Netanyahu. His party asserted shortly after exit polls were released that incidents of violence and voting irregularities had taken place at polling stations in predominantly Arab areas.
A spokesperson for the Central Election Committee issued quick denials of any irregularities to Israeli media overnight.
“Given that the counting has only begun at this time, there is certainly no basis for baseless rumors about so-called ‘fakes’ in this or that sector,” the spokesperson told The Jerusalem Post.