Netanyahu Extends Lead, but Fate of Minor Parties Gives Opponents Hope

JERUSALEM — Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s opposition leader, extended his lead on Wednesday morning in Israel’s fifth election since 2019, but the final result remained unclear because of the uncertain fate of three small parties that could block him from power.

With roughly two thirds of the vote counted, Israel’s three main broadcasters projected that Mr. Netanyahu’s party, Likud, would finish first and that his right-wing bloc was likely to be able to form a majority in Parliament.

If the results hold, they would propel Mr. Netanyahu, Israel’s longest-serving prime minister, back to power with an even bigger majority than exit polls predicted late on Tuesday.

But such projections have been wrong before, particularly in tight races, most recently in the previous election in March 2021, when they exaggerated Mr. Netanyahu’s eventual tally. Final results aren’t expected until Friday.

The outcome of the election hinges on the fate of three small parties — a leftist party, an Islamist party and a Palestinian nationalist party — that are likely to block a majority for Mr. Netanyahu if they win enough votes to cross the threshold needed to enter Parliament.

Early on Wednesday, the three groups were in danger of falling just short, hugely reducing leftist and Arab representation in Parliament.

But with the three parties each only needing to win 3.25 percent of the overall votes, pollsters said it was too soon to count them out.

If the current tallies stand, however, Mr. Netanyahu will be in position to return to office even as he stands trial on corruption charges, 16 months after he lost power.

Regardless of Mr. Netanyahu’s fate, the results already constitute a watershed victory for a far-right alliance that is assured of becoming the third-largest bloc in Parliament, and the second-largest in Mr. Netanyahu’s coalition.

The far-right alliance seeks to reduce checks and balances on lawmakers, give politicians more control over the appointment of judges, end Palestinian autonomy in parts of the occupied West Bank and legalize a form of corruption that Mr. Netanyahu is accused of committing.

The alliance’s most prominent figure, Itamar Ben-Gvir, wants to grant legal immunity to Israeli soldiers who shoot at Palestinians and to deport rival lawmakers he accuses of terrorism. Until recently, he hung a portrait in his home of Baruch Goldstein, who shot dead 29 Palestinians in a West Bank mosque in 1994.

“The time has come for us to be the landlords of our country,” Mr. Ben-Gvir said in a speech early on Wednesday morning as supporters chanted “death to terrorists.”

Speaking later, Mr. Netanyahu struck a more conciliatory tone in his own victory speech. “If the true results reflect the projections, I will establish a national government that will look after everyone,” Mr. Netanyahu said.

He spoke of “restoring national pride” in the Jewish state, but he added that Israel was a country that “respects all its citizens.”

Nevertheless, analysts say that Mr. Netanyahu will most likely need to pursue hard-line policies to keep Mr. Ben-Gvir and his far-right allies placated. Mr. Ben-Gvir’s alliance is pushing for control of ministries that oversee the army and the police, and Mr. Netanyahu made no mention of his allies’ divisive proposals to overhaul and weaken the justice system.

The strong showing of Mr. Netanyahu’s bloc highlighted how it had successfully presented the election as a chance to reinforce the country’s Jewish identity.

Prime Minister Yair Lapid’s departing government united political opponents from the right, left and center, and included the first independent Arab party to join an Israeli governing coalition.

That diversity unsettled right-wing Jewish voters, who apparently felt that it undermined Israel’s Jewish character. Mr. Lapid’s government also angered ultra-Orthodox voters by raising taxes on goods often used by their community and by trying to reduce their leaders’ influence over aspects of public life.

“More than half the people had enough of the previous government,” Arye Deri, the leader of an ultra-Orthodox party in Mr. Netanyahu’s bloc, told reporters overnight. “A government that did not see them,” Mr. Deri added. “A government that did not consider them. A government that endangered the Jewish character of the state.”

“All of this is finished,” he said.

Isabel Kershner and Myra Noveck contributed reporting.

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