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Exit polls point to Netanyahu’s victory in the Israeli elections Main stories

JERUSALEM (AP) — Weekend polls in Israel showed on Tuesday that former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his allies may have won enough seats to return to power in a nationalist, religious government after 3 1/2 years of political gridlock.

Polls are preliminary and final results may change as votes are counted. Israeli media reports say the small Arab nationalist party is closing in on the electoral threshold that would give it four seats and wipe out Netanyahu’s narrow projected lead.

It was Israel’s fifth election in less than four years, and all hinged largely on Netanyahu’s ability to govern. Polls by Israel’s three major TV channels showed Netanyahu and his allies would capture the 61-seat majority in parliament needed to form a new government.

Polls also showed far-right MP Itamar Ben-Gvir’s Religious Zionism became the third-largest party. Ben Gvir is a disciple of a racist rabbi who was assassinated in the 1990s and promised a hard line against the Palestinians.

“It could turn around, we don’t know,” Netanyahu told supporters after exit polls came in. “We are not dead. We are alive and well, maybe in front of a big victory, but we have to wait until the morning.”

Perhaps fearing that Arab voters would deny him victory, Netanyahu tweeted accusations of violence and vote-rigging at Arab polling stations without providing evidence. The Central Election Commission said that they are not aware of such cases.

Arabs make up about 20% of Israel’s population and were a key factor in blocking Netanyahu in the last election, but this time their votes were split between three different factions, each of which risked falling below a threshold that would mean those votes were wasted.

Ben-Gvir is expected to run for the post of head of the ministry that oversees the police. Just last month, he brandished a gun in a tense Palestinian neighborhood of Jerusalem and called on police to shoot Palestinian stone throwers. He also called for the deportation of Arab MPs.

Netanyahu, who is on trial for corruption, will be able to fight the charges as prime minister, increasing his chances of avoiding conviction or jail time. His opponents see him as a serious threat to Israel’s democratic institutions and the rule of law.

“While the exit polls may indicate a trend, it is important to note that there have been discrepancies between these studies and the actual results of past election rounds,” said Yohanan Plessner, president of the Israel Democracy Institute, an independent think tank.

But if the results come true, the next government “is preparing to propose a series of reforms that will be aimed at politicizing the judicial system and weakening the checks and balances that exist between the branches of government and serve as fundamental components of Israeli democracy,” he said. added.

Two hours before the polls closed, election officials said turnout was 66.3%, more than five points higher than the same hour in the 2021 election and the highest since 1999, when the main issue there was an unstable peace process with the Palestinians.

Netanyahu’s main challenger is the man he helped oust last year, centrist Prime Minister Yair Lapid, who has warned of a nationalist-religious alliance if Netanyahu is returned to power.

“Vote for the state of Israel and for the future of our children,” Lapid said after voting in an elite neighborhood of Tel Aviv.

After he cast his vote in the West Bank settlement where he lives, Ben-Gvir promised that a vote for his party would lead to a “totally right-wing government” with Netanyahu as prime minister.

Ben-Gvir, who was convicted of incitement for his anti-Arab rhetoric, saw his influence at the polls grow ahead of the vote and claimed a key portfolio should Netanyahu be appointed to form a government.

Celebrations erupted at his party headquarters in Jerusalem late Tuesday night, with supporters cheering and dancing with Israeli and party flags. Betzalel Smotrich, head of the Religious Zionist party, which includes Ben Gvir’s faction, called the forecast results “historic.”

With former allies and protégés refusing to sit under him while he is on trial, Netanyahu has been unable to form a viable majority government in the 120-seat Knesset, or parliament.

Netanyahu’s opponents, an ideologically diverse constellation of parties, have found it equally difficult to muster the 61 seats needed to govern.

This impasse has mired Israel in an unprecedented political crisis that has undermined Israelis’ faith in their democracy, its institutions and political leaders.

Buoyed by the almost cult-like adoration of his followers, Netanyahu, 73, has rejected calls to resign from his opponents, who say someone on trial for fraud, breach of trust and bribery is unfit to govern. Netanyahu has pleaded not guilty, but embarrassing details of the ongoing trial have repeatedly made front-page news.

In Israel’s fragmented politics, no party has ever won a parliamentary majority, and governing requires a coalition. Netanyahu’s most likely path to the premiership requires an alliance with extreme nationalist and religious ultra-Orthodox parties.

Some of these parties have promised reforms that could end Netanyahu’s legal problems.

Ben Gvir’s ultra-nationalist party has pledged to support legislation that would change the legal code, weaken the judiciary and help Netanyahu avoid a sentence.

Netanyahu’s Likud party tried to quell concerns about the future of Israeli democracy, saying any changes to the legal code would not apply to Netanyahu’s case and that the more extreme elements of his potential coalition would be reined in.

Netanyahu, currently the leader of the opposition, portrays himself as the consummate statesman and the only leader capable of guiding the country through its many challenges.

He was ousted last year after 12 years in power by a diverse coalition formed by Lapid.

The coalition was made up of nationalists opposed to Palestinian statehood, pro-peace parties, and — for the first time in the country’s history — a small Arab Islamist party. The groups were united by their distaste for Netanyahu.

But that coalition fell apart this spring due to infighting.

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

In his short tenure as interim leader, Lapid welcomed President Joe Biden to Israel, led the country in a brief military operation against Gaza militants and signed a diplomatic agreement with Lebanon establishing a maritime border between the hostile countries.

Nevertheless, Lapid’s chances to return to the leadership are shaky. He relies on voters from Israel’s Palestinian minority, who make up one-fifth of the population. Their turnout is projected to hit a historic low, but if they unexpectedly turn out to vote, it could reduce numbers in Netanyahu’s camp.

After the votes are counted, the parties have almost three months to form a government. If they can’t, Israel will go to another election.


Associated Press reporters Sam McNeil in Lod, Israel, and Moshe Edri in Tel Aviv, Israel contributed.


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