Israel election: Netanyahu on brink of comeback, exit polls show

Israel's fifth election in less than four years exasperated many, but turnout was reported at highest level since 1999

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After promising results in the exit polls from Tuesday's election, the atmosphere at the Likud party headquarters in Jerusalem is a celebratory one: the party headed by former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu seems to be on the brink of returning to office.

Israel's longest-serving prime minister, Mr Netanyahu was poised to take 61 or 62 seats in the 120-seat Knesset, Israeli television exit polls showed.

Security on the streets and soaring prices topped the list of voter concerns in a campaign started after defections from centrist Prime Minister Yair Lapid's unlikely ruling coalition of right-wing, liberal and Arab parties.

Policy issues have been overshadowed by the outsize personality of Mr Netanyahu, who is on trial over corruption charges, which he denies. His legal battles have fed the stalemate blocking Israel's political system since he was indicted on bribery, fraud and breach of trust charges in 2019.

Early indications pointed to a strong showing by the right, which had been predicted to fall slightly short of a majority.

Israel's fifth election in less than four years exasperated many voters but turnout was reported at the highest level since 1999.

One of those celebrating hardest at Likud headquarters is Tal Gilboa, a vegan activist and once the winner of the Israeli version of the reality show Big Brother.

Tonight, she is only an activist for Mr Netanyahu, a man she and people throughout the country also known as Bibi.

“We’ve been out for two months trying to get this result,” she says, beaming. “I was an adviser to the former prime minister. I am so proud of him. He was the first and only prime minister to eat lab-grown meat, because of my activism!”

Tal Gilboa, a vegan activist, winner of the Israeli version of the reality show 'Big Brother' and a supporter of Benjamin Netanyahu. Thomas Helm / The National

With “God’s help”, Ms Gilboa hopes to see her political hero back in power as soon as possible.

Amid the singing, dancing — she created the event’s lively playlist — and jumping up and down, she does urge caution: “Look, I’m happy but I’m not super-mega happy yet. We still have to wait for the final results.”

But, for now, Likud’s supporters seem genuinely happy.

And while the mood at Likud headquarters is high, the real celebration to watch is the one erupting in a hotel over the road, where the far-right Religious Zionism party is gathered.

While a lot could still change — official results are released on Friday — if Mr Netanyahu has won the mandate to build a coalition, he will most likely do so with them.

That could well mean ministerial positions for its leader Bezalel Smotrich and Itamar Ben-Gvir, whose Otzma Yehudit party is running on the same list.

Mr Smotrich has his sights set on the country’s judicial system, which he views as biased and in need of radical reform. Many Israelis on the left fear that he will vandalise it, changing forever a key institution in the country’s democracy.

Mr Ben-Gvir is gunning for influence in Israel’s approach to internal security, a major area of concern for many as domestic instability and violence now occurs on a near daily basis. His focus includes annexing the West Bank, loosening rules of engagement and even encouraging Palestinian migration.

The inclusion of Mr Ben-Gvir — a former member of Kach, a group on Israeli and US terrorist watch lists, and who was once convicted for racist incitement — in any new government could alarm allies, including Washington.

Most of all, the party wants all of this to be underpinned by what one Religious Zionism supporter termed “a strong, conservative Jewish identity for Israel”.

These openly radical proposals and an almost messianic clarity of purpose would have been taboo not long ago. Religious Zionism supporters are celebrating so hard because they now stand a good chance of entering the mainstream.

They want a new Israel that embraces a new type of right-wing politics. This popular mandate has helped put Likud, their potential partners, in power.

They will be expecting a lot in return — the next few days and weeks will indicate just how much.

For now, the cheers, signing and dancing of Likud members draped in flags project only an image of unity and victory. But they might soon be less happy at what their new partners ask of them.

Reuters contributed to this report

Updated: November 04, 2022, 5:15 AM