By TIA GOLDENBERG
JERUSALEM (AP) — Exit polls in Israel indicated Tuesday that former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his allies may have won enough seats to return to power in a nationalist religious government after 3 1/2 years of political gridlock.
The polls are preliminary, and final results could change as votes are tallied. Israeli media reported that a small Arab nationalist party was approaching the electoral threshold, which would give it four seats and erase Netanyahu’s narrow projected margin.
It was the fifth election in less than four years in Israel, and all of them turned largely on Netanyahu’s fitness to govern. Polls by three major Israeli TV stations indicated that Netanyahu and his allies would capture the 61-seat majority in parliament required to form a new government.
The polls also showed far-right lawmaker Itamar Ben-Gvir’s Religious Zionism as the third-largest party. Ben-Gvir is a disciple of a racist rabbi who was assassinated in the 1990s and has promised a hard line against the Palestinians.
“It can flip, we don’t know,” Netanyahu told supporters after the exit polls came out. “We’re not dead. We’re alive and kicking, possibly before a great victory, but we have to wait until the morning.”
Perhaps fearing that Arab voters would deny him victory, Netanyahu tweeted allegations of violence and vote tampering at Arab polling stations, without providing evidence. The Central Elections Committee said it was not aware of any such incidents.
Arabs make up some 20% of Israel’s population and have been a key factor in blocking Netanyahu in recent elections, but this time around their vote was split among three different factions, each of which was at risk of falling below the threshold, which would mean those votes were wasted.
Ben-Gvir is expected to seek a Cabinet position as head of the ministry that oversees police. Just last month he brandished a handgun in a tense Palestinian neighborhood of Jerusalem and called on the police to shoot Palestinian stone-throwers. He has also called for deportation of Arab lawmakers.
Netanyahu, who is on trial for corruption, would be able to battle the charges as prime minister, improving his chances of avoiding conviction or jail time. His opponents view him as a grave threat to Israel’s democratic institutions and the rule of law.
“While the exit polls may indicate a trend, it is important to note that there have been discrepancies between these surveys and the actual results in past rounds of elections,” said Yohanan Plesner, president of the Israel Democracy Institute, an independent think tank.
But if the results hold true, the next government “is poised to propose a series of reforms that would seek to politicize the judiciary and weaken the checks and balances that exist between the branches of government and serve as fundamental components of Israeli democracy,” he added.
Two hours before the polls closed, election officials said turnout stood at 66.3%, over five points higher than the same hour in the 2021 election and the highest at that point since 1999, when the main issue was the flagging peace process with the Palestinians.
Netanyahu’s main rival is the man who helped oust him last year, the centrist caretaker Prime Minister Yair Lapid, who has warned against the nationalist religious alliance that would emerge should Netanyahu return to power.
“Vote for the state of Israel, and for the future of our children,” Lapid said after casting his ballot in his upscale Tel Aviv neighborhood.
After he cast his vote in the West Bank settlement where he lives, Ben-Gvir promised that a vote for his party would bring about a “fully right-wing government” with Netanyahu as prime minister.
Ben-Gvir, who has been convicted of incitement for his anti-Arab rhetoric had seen his clout rise in the polls ahead of the vote and has demanded a key portfolio should Netanyahu be tapped to form a government.
Celebrations erupted at his party’s headquarters in Jerusalem late Tuesday, with supporters cheering and dancing with Israeli flags and party flags. Bezalel Smotrich, head of the Religious Zionism party that includes Ben-Gvir’s faction, hailed the projected results as “historic.”
With former allies and proteges refusing to sit under him while he is on trial, Netanyahu has been unable to form a viable majority government in the 120-seat Knesset, or parliament.
Netanyahu’s opponents, an ideologically diverse constellation of parties, are equally hamstrung in cobbling together the 61 seats needed to rule.
That impasse has mired Israel in an unprecedented political crisis that has eroded Israelis’ faith in their democracy, its institutions and their political leaders.
Buoyed by his followers’ almost cult-like adoration, Netanyahu, 73, has rejected calls to step down by his opponents, who say someone on trial for fraud, breach of trust and accepting bribes cannot govern. Netanyahu denies wrongdoing, but embarrassing details from his ongoing trial repeatedly make front-page news.
In Israel’s fragmented politics, no single party has ever won a parliamentary majority, and coalition-building is necessary to govern. Netanyahu’s most likely path to the premiership requires an alliance with extreme nationalists and religious ultra-Orthodox parties.
Some of those parties have promised to enact reforms that could make Netanyahu’s legal woes disappear.
Ben-Gvir’s ultranationalist party has promised to support legislation that would alter the legal code, weaken the judiciary and could help Netanyahu evade a conviction.
Netanyahu’s Likud party has tried to tamp down worries about the future of Israeli democracy, saying any changes to the legal code won’t apply to Netanyahu’s case and that the more extreme elements of his potential coalition will be reined in.
Netanyahu, currently opposition leader, paints himself as the consummate statesman and only leader capable of steering the country through its myriad challenges.
He was ousted last year after 12 years in power by the diverse coalition forged by Lapid.
The coalition was made up of nationalists who oppose Palestinian statehood, dovish parties that seek a peace agreement, as well as — for the first time in the country’s history — a small Arab Islamist party. The groups united over their distaste for Netanyahu.
But that coalition collapsed this spring because of infighting.
The centrist Lapid, a former author and broadcaster who became premier as part of a power-sharing agreement, has portrayed himself as an honest and scandal-free change from the polarizing Netanyahu.
In his short term as caretaker leader, Lapid welcomed President Joe Biden on a visit to Israel, led the country in a brief military operation against Gaza militants and signed a diplomatic agreement with Lebanon setting a maritime boundary between the enemy nations.
Still, Lapid’s chances to return to leadership are shaky. He is relying on voters from Israel’s Palestinian minority, who make up one-fifth of the population. Their turnout is predicted to reach historic lows, but if they unexpectedly do come out to vote, that could slash the Netanyahu camp’s numbers.
After the votes are tallied, the parties have nearly three months to form a government. If they can’t, Israel will head to yet another election.
Associated Press reporters Sam McNeil in Lod, Israel, and Moshe Edri in Tel Aviv, Israel, contributed.