Benjamin Netanyahu moved closer to victory in Israel’s election, which would mark a major comeback for the country’s longest-serving premier after more than a year out of power.
With over 93% of votes counted by Thursday morning, Mr. Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud party maintained its lead with 32 seats and his right-wing religious and nationalist bloc was on course to win 65 in the 120-seat parliament, or Knesset, according to Israeli national broadcaster Kan. Prime Minister Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid party remained on track to win 24 seats and his bloc of right-wing, left-wing and Arab parties were on course to secure 50.
Two left-wing parties continued to hover just below the electoral threshold required for entering the Knesset. But as more votes were counted, their chances of passing the threshold appeared dimmer.
In the coming days, Israeli President Isaac Herzog is set to choose the leader he believes has the best chance of assembling a governing coalition, usually the head of the party that wins the most seats or receives the most recommendations to form a government from fellow lawmakers. That person has up to six weeks to try to cobble together a majority coalition that includes the support of smaller parties.
Analysts say Mr. Netanyahu would likely form the most right-wing and religious governing coalition in the nation’s history. His success was propelled by a sharp surge in popularity for ultranationalist religious lawmaker Itamar Ben-Gvir, who ran on a law-and-order campaign promising to impose tough measures to quell unrest in the West Bank. Mr. Ben-Gvir’s national religious alliance was set to win 14 seats, which would make it the third-largest party in the Knesset, according to Kan.
The rise of Mr. Ben-Gvir, who was convicted in 2007 of incitement to racism and supporting a terrorist group, underscores a shift among Israelis toward more right-wing candidates in recent years.
Mr. Ben-Gvir’s presence in a governing coalition could raise tensions with the U.S. and other allies, especially Arab countries such as the United Arab Emirates that have only recently normalized relations with Israel.
The projected victory reinforces Mr. Netanyahu’s reputation as “the magician,” as Mr. Netanyahu is known in Israel, for his ability to stage repeated comebacks.
His expected victory is in part due to his ability to unite a group of fractious right-wing parties that allowed them to consolidate their votes, according to political analysts. Mr. Lapid, in contrast, wasn’t able to unite a group of left-wing parties, leading several to fall below the electoral threshold needed to enter parliament.
The result means Ben-Gvir is likely to gain a cabinet seat. The 46-year-old lawyer, who reportedly was not drafted for military service in the Israel Defense Forces because of his extremism, has already demanded the public security ministry.
Such a proposition will rightly scare many. His mere inclusion in any new government risks further inflaming tensions with Palestinians with Israeli citizenship, just over a year after the worst communal violence between Jews and Arabs in years shocked the country and exposed fragile faultlines in society. The occupied West Bank is enduring its worst violence since 2015 as Israeli forces clash with Palestinians on an almost daily basis.
In his youth, Ben-Gvir was a disciple of the late rabbi Meir Kahane, whose anti-Arab ideology was so extreme he was banned from parliament and his movement was labelled a terrorist group by the US. Ben-Gvir has branded Arab members of the Knesset as traitors and once threatened to expel Palestinians with Israeli citizenship. He claims to have moderated his views, but his inclusion will sully Israel’s reputation.
The composition of such a rightwing government also risks complicating relations with the US, Israel’s main ally. Netanyahu already has a chequered relationship with US Democrats after openly criticising Barack Obama during his presidency.
It may also test the durability of nascent ties between Israel and the United Arab Emirates, which formalised relations with the Jewish state two years ago, leading to the so-called Abraham Accords
Meanwhile, Ben-Gvir’s bedfellow, Smotrich, has pledged to push for wide-ranging legal reforms that would undermine the judicial system by inhibiting the Supreme Court’s ability to overturn Knesset laws that it deems as contravening Israel’s Basic Laws and by giving the government control over the appointment of all judges.
Many suspect that Netanyahu’s ultimate political goal has been to protect himself from prosecution as his corruption trial drags on. He has denied any wrongdoing. Ben-Gvir has reportedly said he would support legislation to dismiss the case against Netanyahu. That would be another catastrophe for Israel’s democratic credentials.
Netanyahu may have his victory and Israel may return to a semblance of political stability, but the real issue is at what cost.