Israel election: Netanyahu on ‘verge of big victory’ as ultra-nationalist party breaks through

Former Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu looks poised for a dramatic return to power, according to the latest exit polls, as results also pointed to Itamar Ben-Gvir’s far-right Religious Zionist party becoming the third largest in Israel’s parliament.

With around 85 per cent of the vote counted, Mr Netanyahu’s Likud party, with the help of right-wing allies including Mr Ben-Gvir looks set to secure a small majority in the 120-seat Knesset.

“We are on the verge of a very big victory,” Netanyahu, 73, told supporters at a gathering in Jerusalem on Wednesday. “I will establish a nationalist government that will see to all Israeli citizens without any exceptions.”

His longtime rival, incumbent prime minister Yair Lapid of the centrist Yesh Atid party, was predicted to win 24 seats, with his camp at 54 seats overall. The Religious Zionist party is on course to get 14 seats.

Final results are expected on Friday.

The hundreds of thousands of remaining ballots — mostly from those who voted away from their regular place of residency — have to be cross-checked for accuracy, a more time-consuming effort. They could lend a boost to Netanyahu’s opponents, reducing the size of any potential majority.

With Netanyahu and his allies projected to win more than the 61-seat majority needed to form a government, the country’s protracted political crisis may be headed toward a conclusion, though Israel remains as divided as ever as illustrated by the rise of Mr Gvir and his once-fringe party.

He was a former member of Kach, a group placed on Israeli and US terrorist watchlists.

Mr Ben Gvir is a disciple of Meir Kahane, founder of the Kach party and the Jewish Defence League (JDL). Like Mr Kahane, who was assassinated in New York in 1990 and considered a pariah, the Religious Zionist leader has espoused extreme views against those he considers disloyal to the Israeli state.

Should Mr Netanyahu fall short of a parliamentary majority, Mr Ben Gvir’s party would likely fall first in line as coalition kingmaker and seed one of the most right-wing governments in Israeli history.

At an all-male campaign gathering in Jerusalem, men wearing Jewish skullcaps and waving Israeli flags danced in celebration of the election. At the celebration, Mr Ben-Gvir’s supporters chanted “death to terrorists”.

The Religious Zinonist leader has fast become one of Israel‘s most popular politicians thanks to his frequent media appearances and calls for a harder line against Palestinians. Young ultra-Orthodox men are among his strongest supporters.

Ben-Gvir lives in the hardline West Bank settlement of Kiryat Arba and is a strong proponent of settlement construction. He has described Arab colleagues in parliament as “terrorists,” called for deporting those who are “disloyal” and recently brandished a handgun in a tense Palestinian neighborhood of Jerusalem as he called on police to shoot Palestinian stone-throwers.

“We want to make a total separation between those who are loyal to the state of Israel — and we don’t have any problem with them — and those who undermine our dear country,” he said.

Muhammad Shtayyeh, the Palestinian prime minister, described rise of Israel‘s far right as “a natural result of the growing manifestations of extremism and racism in Israeli society”.

Israelis voted in the country’s fifth election in less than four years, hoping to break the political deadlock which has paralysed the country.

Mr Netanyahu was Israel‘s longest-serving prime minister, governing for 12 consecutive years before he was ousted last year by Mr Lapid, who went on to lead an unlikely patchwork of centrist and Arab parties, which disagreed on most issues, from Israeli occupation to LGBT+ rights.

Mr Lapid, addressing supporters early Wednesday, insisted that the race was not yet over. “Until the last envelope is counted, nothing is over and nothing is final,” he said.

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