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Netanyahu Holds Slight Lead in Israeli Election, Exit Polls Show

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JERUSALEM — Benjamin Netanyahu’s right-wing alliance may have won a narrow lead in Israel’s fifth election in less than four years, exit polls suggested on Tuesday night, giving him a chance of returning to power at the helm of one of the most right-wing governments in Israeli history.

Three broadcasters’ exit polls indicated that Mr. Netanyahu’s party, Likud, would finish first and that his right-wing bloc was likely to be able to form a narrow majority in Parliament.

But exit polls in Israel have been wrong before, particularly in tight races — and they exaggerated Mr. Netanyahu’s eventual tally in the last election, in March 2021.

If the right-wing bloc does eke out a narrow victory, it will allow Mr. Netanyahu, Israel’s longest-serving prime minister, to return to office even as he stands trial on corruption charges.

Regardless of whether Mr. Netanyahu wins back power, the election was a triumph for Israel’s far right.

An ultranationalist religious alliance that backs Mr. Netanyahu was projected to become the third-largest bloc in Parliament, highlighting how the election was construed by many right-wing Jewish Israeli voters — unsettled by Arab participation in Israel’s outgoing government — as a chance to reinforce the country’s Jewish identity.

The far-right alliance seeks to upend Israel’s judicial system, end Palestinian autonomy in parts of the occupied West Bank and legalize a form of corruption that Mr. Netanyahu is accused of committing.

“The time has come for us to be the landlords of our country,” Itamar Ben-Gvir, one of Mr. Netanyahu’s new far-right partners, said in a speech early on Wednesday morning.

Mr. Ben-Gvir seeks to grant legal immunity to Israeli soldiers who shoot at Palestinians, and 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 public voted for a Jewish identity,” Mr. Ben-Gvir added, as his supporters chanted “death to terrorists” in the background.

At 3 a.m., Mr. Netanyahu arrived at the Likud party headquarters in Jerusalem and was given a triumphant reception by the party faithful. Though he cautioned that the final results were not yet in, he nevertheless delivered a kind of victory speech, telling his supporters, “If the true results reflect the projections, I will establish a national government that will look after everyone.”

In an effort to appeal to all Israelis, and assuage the fears of his critics, he said he intended to work to heal the rifts within Israeli society, as well to seek a broader peace with Israel’s neighbors. He spoke of “restoring national pride” in the Jewish state, but added that Israel was a country that “respects all its citizens.” He made no mention of his allies’ divisive proposals to overhaul and weaken the justice system.

Clearer results may not emerge until Wednesday morning, and final numbers will not be announced until Friday. Party leaders will not be asked to nominate a prime minister before next week.

But if the exit polls prove to be correct, Israel may have ended a four-year political deadlock in which no leader could win a stable parliamentary majority, leaving the country without a national budget for long stretches and repeatedly returning Israelis to the ballot box.

For the first time since 2019, the country could be governed by a parliamentary majority formed from a single ideologically aligned bloc — reducing the risk of infighting in the coalition and the likelihood of another early election. In addition to the far-right, Mr. Netanyahu’s likely coalition includes two ultra-Orthodox parties that oppose the secularization of Israeli public life.

A government led by Mr. Netanyahu and featuring Mr. Ben-Gvir would bring down the final curtain on one of Israel’s most diverse coalitions ever: Prime Minister Yair Lapid’s eight-party alliance, which united political opponents from the right, left and center, and included the first independent Arab party to join an Israeli governing coalition.

If the exit polls are accurate, the leaders of the parties in Mr. Netanyahu’s bloc will be able to formally nominate him for prime minister next week, as long as they can seal a coalition agreement. Two of Mr. Netanyahu’s far-right allies have said they will push to lead ministries that oversee the army and the police — appointments that Mr. Netanyahu has expressed wariness of, potentially slowing down coalitions negotiations.

Adjusted projections early Wednesday morning indicated that Mr. Netanyahu’s Likud finished first, with 30 to 32 seats, while his wider right-wing bloc won 62 seats, according to all three main television channels, enough to form a narrow majority in the 120-seat Parliament.

Mr. Lapid’s centrist party, Yesh Atid, was projected to win 22 to 24 seats, and his wider alliance 54 to 55 seats. An unaligned party won the remaining seats.

That calculus could change quickly as real results come in. One Arab party, Balad, was teetering just below the electoral threshold, 3.25 percent of the total vote. Should Balad reach the threshold, analysts said, that would change all the calculations and reduce Mr. Netanyahu’s lead, potentially depriving his bloc of a majority.

Early Wednesday, the central elections committee said that the final voter turnout by 10 p.m., when the polls closed, was 71.3 percent. That was the highest since Israel’s 2015 election, when turnout was 71.8 percent, but below some previous votes.

Israel’s political gridlock began when Mr. Netanyahu declined to leave power after being placed under investigation on accusations of corruption. His decision left the country roughly evenly divided between voters who thought he should now stay away from politics and those who believed he should stay.

An outright victory for Mr. Netanyahu would not resolve a more protracted debate about the kind of society Israelis want — a debate that was central to the election campaign.

Mr. Netanyahu’s bloc presented the vote as a quest to preserve Israel’s Jewish character. He and his allies targeted Jewish Israelis alienated by Arab involvement in Mr. Lapid’s departing government and unsettled by a spasm of ethnic unrest between Arabs and Jews in Israeli cities last year.

By contrast, Mr. Netanyahu’s opponents presented the election as a bid to protect Israel’s liberal democracy. In particular, they warned of his dependence on a far-right alliance that has frequently antagonized Israel’s Arab minority and seeks to remove checks and balances on the lawmaking process.

Once again, Mr. Netanyahu’s fitness for office was the campaign’s defining theme. He was placed under investigation in 2016 on charges related to bribery, fraud and breach of trust.

Three elections ended inconclusively in 2019-20, leaving Mr. Netanyahu in power but unable to pass a budget, and forcing Israelis to return each time to the ballot box.

Mr. Netanyahu was ousted after a fourth election in 2021, when a former right-wing ally, Naftali Bennett, broke ranks to lead a coalition with Mr. Lapid’s centrist party and seven others, including Raam — the first Arab party to join an Israeli government.

That alliance collapsed in July amid profound ideological disagreements among its members, leading Mr. Bennett to make way for Mr. Lapid and call for another election.

Then followed a brief, downbeat and stop-start campaign in which the parties and a tired electorate were distracted by a run of four Jewish holidays through September and October.

Mr. Netanyahu portrayed himself as the only candidate able to keep Israel safe, portraying a border deal sealed recently by Mr. Lapid with neighboring Lebanon as a weak compromise that had endangered Israel’s security.

The far-right alliance allied to Mr. Netanyahu, Religious Zionism, often eclipsed him during the campaign through their populist promises to loosen judicial oversight over lawmaking, grant legal immunity to Israeli soldiers who shoot at Palestinians, and deport rival lawmakers they accuse of terrorism.

The leader of Religious Zionism, Bezalel Smotrich, has described himself as a “proud homophobe” and said that Israel’s Arab minority had survived in Israel only “by mistake,” after Israel’s founders didn’t expel enough of them in the wars surrounding the creation of the state in 1948. He has also supported segregated maternity wards for Arab and Jewish women, and said Jewish developers should not have to sell homes to Arabs.

His colleague, Mr. Ben-Gvir, was barred from serving in the Israeli Army because he was considered a security threat, and recently described Meir Kahane, an extremist rabbi who wanted to strip Arab Israelis of their citizenship, as his “hero.”

Throughout the campaign, Mr. Ben-Gvir presented himself as an enforcer of law and order. He frequently visited areas of pronounced tensions between Israelis and Palestinians, at one point drawing his handgun and calling on his police escorts to shoot at nearby Arabs.

A victory for Mr. Netanyahu would eliminate the already unlikely chance of resuming peace negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians. Throughout the campaign, he presented himself as a bulwark against the creation of a Palestinian state — the so-called two-state solution — while allies like Mr. Ben-Gvir advocated ending Palestinian autonomy altogether.

But though Mr. Lapid supports a two-state solution, he would also be unlikely to push for peace if he remained in government. Mr. Lapid’s own bloc includes parties that also oppose a Palestinian state, while the Palestinian leadership is also divided and badly placed to resume peace talks.

The effect of a victory for Mr. Netanyahu “cannot be minimized,” said Yohanan Plesner, president of the Israel Democracy Institute, a Jerusalem-based research group.

“If the exit polls hold true,” he said, “Israel is headed toward a governing coalition that could seek to fundamentally alter its current democratic order and weaken the country’s delicate system of checks and balances.”

Reporting was contributed by Myra Noveck from Jerusalem; Irit Pazner Garshowitz from Tzur Hadassah, Israel; Gabby Sobelman from Rehovot, Israel; and Hiba Yazbek from Nazareth, Israel.

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