Yair Lapid concedes defeat and congratulates Benjamin Netanyahu on Israel election win

With the final votes still being counted, the former prime minister looks set to form the country's most right-wing administration in its history

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Israel’s Prime Minister Yair Lapid conceded defeat on Thursday and instructed all branches of government to prepare for the orderly transition of power to former leader Benjamin Netanyahu.

A statement from his office said Mr Lapid had congratulated Mr Netanyahu on his victory in Tuesday’s elections.

“The state of Israel comes before any political consideration,” Mr Lapid said. “I wish Netanyahu success, for the sake of the people of Israel and the state of Israel.”

Mr Lapid, who has served as interim prime minister for the past four months, made the announcement after a near-final vote count showed Mr Netanyahu securing a parliamentary majority - though ballots are still being counted.

US ambassador Tom Nides said he had spoken with Mr Netanyahu to congratulate him on his victory and said he looked forward to working with him on keeping the “unbreakable bond” between Israel and America.

Mr Netanyahu is expected to assemble the most right-wing coalition government in Israel’s history after a big turnout in a tight election.

The former prime minister's return with what appears to be a comfortable majority belies the fact that a last-minute surprise by a dovish group to cross the threshold to enter parliament could have altered the tables significantly and created a pathway for Mr Lapid to remain in power.

But, as it stands, Mr Netanyahu and his ultranationalist and ultra-Orthodox allies are expected to secure 65 seats in Israel’s 120-seat Knesset. His opponents in the current coalition, led by Mr Lapid, were expected to win 50 seats.

While the result gives Mr Netanyahu a comfortable lead that can end the political instability that has brought the country to the polls five times in five years, it leaves Israelis split over their leadership and over the values that define their state: Jewish or democratic.

Mr Netanyahu’s top partner in the government is expected to be the far-right Religious Zionism party, whose main candidate, Itamar Ben-Gvir is a disciple of a racist rabbi and says he wants to end Palestinian autonomy in parts of the West Bank.

Until recently, he hung a photo in his home of Baruch Goldstein, an American-Israeli who killed 29 Palestinians in a West Bank shooting in 1993.

Mr Ben-Gvir promises to deport Arab MPs and says he wants to be named head of the ministry that is in charge of the police.

Religious Zionism has promised to enact changes to Israeli law that could make Mr Netanyahu’s corruption charges disappear and, along with other nationalist allies, want to weaken the independence of the judiciary and concentrate more power in the hands of politicians.

The party’s leader, Bezalel Smotrich, a West Bank settler who has made anti-Arab remarks, has his sights set on the Defence Ministry, which would make him the overseer of the military and the West Bank military occupation.

As the votes were being counted, Israeli-Palestinian violence flared, with at least four Palestinians killed in separate incidents and an Israeli police officer wounded slightly in a stabbing.

Mr Ben-Gvir used the incidents to promise a tougher approach to Palestinian attackers once he enters government.

“The time has come to restore security to the streets,” he tweeted. “The time has come for a terrorist who goes out to carry out an attack to be taken out!”

The surging power of Israel’s right wing came at the expense of its left flank.

The Labour party, once a mainstream fixture of Israeli politics and which supports Palestinian statehood, was teetering right above the electoral threshold. As vote-counting neared an end, the anti-occupation Meretz appeared headed for political exile for the first time since it was founded in the 1990s.

Meretz’s leader, Zehava Galon, released a video late on Thursday conceding the party would not be in the next parliament.

“This is a disaster for Meretz, a disaster for the country and yes, a disaster for me,” she said.

After the results are formally announced, Israel’s ceremonial president taps one candidate, usually from the largest party, to form a government. They then have four weeks to do so.

Mr Netanyahu is likely to wrap up talks within that time, but Religious Zionism is expected to drive a hard bargain for its support.

The polarising Mr Netanyahu, Israel’s longest-serving leader, was ousted in 2021 after 12 consecutive years in power by an ideologically diverse coalition that included for the first time in Israel’s history a small Arab party. The coalition collapsed in the spring over infighting.

The former leader has also been charged with fraud, breach of trust and accepting bribes in a series of scandals involving wealthy associates and media moguls. He denies wrongdoing, seeing the trial as a witch hunt against him orchestrated by a hostile media and a biased judicial system.

Updated: November 04, 2022, 5:32 AM