Former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu appears to be leading the election

JERUSALEM (AP) — Former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu appeared to hold a narrow lead Wednesday morning in Israel’s election, according to exit polls, potentially paving the way for a return to power with a boost from Israel. a far-right ally known for his arsonism. anti-Arab comments.

Exit polls were preliminary and final results could change as votes are counted overnight. However, they pointed to a continued shift to the right of the Israeli electorate, further dampening hopes for peace with the Palestinians and paving the way for potential conflict with the Biden administration and Israel’s supporters in the United States.

Tuesday’s election was Israel’s fifth in less than four years, all centered in large part on Netanyahu’s fitness to govern. On trial for a host of corruption charges, Netanyahu is seen by his supporters as the victim of a witch hunt and vilified by his opponents as a trickster and a threat to democracy.

The vote, like previous elections, was extremely close. Exit polls on Israel’s three main TV stations all predicted that Netanyahu and his hardline allies would win 61 or 62 seats in parliament, giving him the majority in the 120-seat parliament needed to govern.

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But polls have shown a small Arab party close to crossing the threshold required to enter parliament – a development that could wipe out its slim majority.

The vast majority of votes were to be counted early Wednesday.

If Netanyahu’s allies emerge victorious, forming a coalition government could still take weeks. A continued stalemate and a new round of elections are also a possibility.

In comments to reporters Tuesday night, Netanyahu refrained from declaring victory. “It can change. We don’t know,” he said. “We are alive and active, maybe before a big win, but we have to wait until morning.”

Perhaps fearing that Arab voters will deny him victory, Netanyahu tweeted allegations of violence and vote tampering at Arab polling stations. He offered no evidence and the country’s non-partisan Central Election Commission dismissed the “baseless rumours”.

Arabs make up about 20% of Israel’s population and played a key role in blocking Netanyahu in recent elections. But this time around, their vote was split between three different factions, each at risk of falling below the threshold, which would mean those votes were wasted.

Netanyahu was Israel’s longest-serving prime minister, ruling for 12 consecutive years — and 15 years in total — before being ousted last year by a diverse coalition led by centrist Yair Lapid.

But the coalition Lapid cobbled together, which included the first Arab party to join a government, was wracked by infighting and fell apart after just a year in power. These parties were close to winning just 54 seats, according to the polls.

Lapid, speaking to supporters early Wednesday, insisted the race was undecided.

“Until the last envelope is counted, nothing is finished and nothing is final,” he said.

The best performance of the evening was that of far right the Religious Zionism of lawmaker Itamar Ben-Gvir, which became the third largest party. At an all-male campaign rally in Jerusalem, religious men wearing Jewish skullcaps and waving Israeli flags danced in celebration.

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Ben-Gvir is a follower of a racist rabbi, Meir Kahane, who was banned from parliament and whose Kach party was branded a terrorist group by the United States before he was assassinated in New York in 1990.

Kahane’s program called for banning intermarriage between Arabs and Jews, stripping Arabs of Israeli citizenship and deporting large numbers of Palestinians.

But while Kahane was seen as an outcast, Ben-Gvir is one of Israel’s most popular politicians, thanks to his frequent media appearances, cheerful demeanor, ability to deflect criticism and calls for a tougher line against Palestinians at a time of heavy fighting in the occupied West Bank. Young ultra-Orthodox men are among its staunchest supporters.

Ben-Gvir lives in the hardline settlement of Kiryat Arba in the West Bank and is a strong supporter of settlement building. He has called his Arab colleagues in parliament ‘terrorists’, called for the expulsion of those who are ‘disloyal’ and recently brandished a handgun in a tight Palestinian neighborhood of Jerusalem as he called on police to fire on Palestinian stone throwers.

During the celebration, supporters of Ben-Gvir chanted “Death to terrorists”.

“We want to make a total separation between those who are loyal to the State of Israel – and we have no problem with them – and those who undermine our dear country,” he said.

Muhammad Shtayyeh, the Palestinian prime minister, said the rise of the Israeli far right was “a natural result of the growing manifestations of extremism and racism in Israeli society”.

If the Netanyahu alliance ends up controlling a majority, Ben-Gvir and his party leader, Bezalel Smotrich, are sure to have a tough negotiation. Ben-Gvir said he would seek the cabinet post to oversee the Israel Police Force.

Both men also said they would seek legal reforms aimed at weakening the independence of the judiciary and giving parliament the power to overturn court decisions they do not like. This could pave the way for the criminal charges against Netanyahu to be dropped. Smotrich and other party members also repeated anti-LGBTQ comments.

Such positions could put a future Netanyahu government on a collision course with the Biden administration, which supports a two-state solution with the Palestinians. It could also alienate Israeli allies in the United States, particularly the predominantly liberal American Jewish community.

“Ben-Gvir is one of the most radical politicians in Israel’s history. If he comes with that much political power, it will pose a major headache for Mr. Netanyahu,” said Yohanan Plesner, president of the Israel Democracy Institute, an independent think tank.

He said Netanyahu, if asked to form the next government, might instead try to seek out other potential coalition partners. With Netanyahu’s opponents vowing never to sit in government with him, that could be a difficult task.

In Israel, voters vote for parties, not individual politicians. No party has ever won a majority on its own and the formation of a coalition is necessary to govern.

Netanyahu’s Likud party was expected to be the largest, with some 31 seats in parliament, followed by Lapid’s Yesh Atid, with 22 to 24 seats.

Lapid was the mastermind of the coalition that made Netanyahu the leader of the opposition.

The coalition was made up of nationalists who oppose a Palestinian state, accommodating parties seeking a peace deal and – for the first time in the country’s history – a small Arab Islamist party. The groups were united in their distaste for Netanyahu.

But that coalition collapsed this spring due to infighting.

The centrist Lapid, a former author and broadcaster who became prime minister in a power-sharing deal, presented himself as an honest and scandal-free change from the polarizing Netanyahu.

During his short tenure as interim leader, Lapid hosted President Joe Biden on a visit to Israel, led the country in a brief military operation against militants in Gaza, and signed a diplomatic agreement with Lebanon. fixing a maritime boundary between enemy nations.

Associated Press correspondent Ilan Ben Zion contributed reporting.

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