Benjamin Netanyahu pulling ahead in Israel election but margins close

Several smaller parties in the anti-Netanyahu coalition are teetering on the edge of the threshold required to win seats in parliament

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Veteran Israeli politician Benjamin Netanyahu was, on Wednesday night, standing on the cusp of returning to power less than two years after vacating the prime minister’s residence despite still facing corruption charges.

With around 87 per cent of the vote counted from Tuesday’s election, Mr Netanyahu — known as Bibi, or as supporters chanted at post-election rallies, the “king of Israel” — looked set to extend his already record-breaking time in office after the country's fifth election in five years.

Confident of success, he said his Likud party had received “a huge vote of confidence”.

However, with margins wafer thin, caretaker Prime Minister Yair Lapid — the architect of the coalition which ousted Mr Netanyahu last year — cautioned that “nothing is decided”.

“[We] will wait patiently … for the final results,” he told crowds backing his centrist Yesh Atid party.

Mr Netanyahu’s Likud appeared set to take the top slot as the largest party with 32 seats in the 120-seat Knesset, while Yesh Atid was on course for 24.

But Likud was buoyed by a strong result for right-wing allies and the Religious Zionism party’s Itamar Ben-Gvir called its gains “a great achievement” as it appeared set to be the third-largest party.

Likud’s result combined with Religious Zionism and the two ultra-Orthodox Jewish parties backing Mr Netanyahu could give the right-wing bloc 65 seats.

Such an outright victory would end the short reign of the coalition which succeeded in ending Mr Netanyhau's record reign last year.

But the margins remain close with a number of smaller parties opposed to Mr Netanyahu teetering on the edge of the threshold required to win seats in parliament.

Despite Israel's election fatigue after five elections in five years, voters came out in force and pushed turnout to its highest rate since 2015, topping 71 per cent, according to official figures.

Supporters of Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid react as they follow the election results at the party's campaign headquarters. AFP

“It is too early to speculate on the exact composition of the next governing coalition until all the votes are counted,” the US ambassador to Israel Thomas Nides said in a statement, adding he was “pleased to see such strong voter turnout.”

Yael Shomer, who teaches politics at Tel Aviv University, said the final outcome could be decided by just “a few thousand votes”.

Whatever the final result, Mr Ben-Gvir was described as “the big winner of this election” by politics lecturer Julia Elad-Strenger from Israel's Bar-Ilan University.

“He took from the Haredim [ultra-Orthodox], from the Likud, of course, new young voters and people who had no one to vote for,” Ms Elad-Strenger said.

The tireless campaigning of Mr Ben-Gvir could see his alliance more than double its current presence in parliament, picking up 14 seats.

The 46-year-old, who has his eye on the public security portfolio, wants Israel to use more force against the Palestinians.

“It's time we go back to being masters of our country,” Mr Ben-Gvir said following the vote.

Arab-Israeli politician Aida Touma-Suleiman said Mr Netanyahu may be on track to form a government “with fascists by his side”.

The vote was held against a backdrop of soaring violence across Israeli-annexed east Jerusalem and the occupied West Bank.

At least 29 Palestinians and three Israelis were killed in the territories in October, according to an AFP tally.

As the votes were being counted on Wednesday, Israeli troops killed a Palestinian that the army said had seriously wounded a soldier with a van in the West Bank.

While many candidates cited security as a concern, none pledged to revive moribund peace talks with the Palestinians.

The coalition led by Lapid was formed by bringing an Arab party into the fold after Mansour Abbas pulled his Raam party from a united slate with other Arab-led parties.

But Raam's pioneering support for a coalition was not viewed positively across Arab society, which makes up about 20 per cent of Israel's population.

For Ms Shomer, from Tel Aviv University, said the anti-Netanyahu bloc crucially failed to ensure alliances of smaller left-wing and Arab-led parties ahead of the vote.

In left-leaning Tel Aviv, 24-year-old voter Lauren Vaturi Moses said she woke up hoping Mr Netanyahu had lost his advantage.

“When I read that he was leading and that this is what was taking shape, it completely depressed me,” she said.

Updated: November 04, 2022, 5:16 AM