By TIA GOLDENBERG
TEL AVIV, Israel (AP) — Israeli election officials were tallying the final votes from national elections on Thursday, with former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu looking likely to reclaim the premiership with a comfortable majority backed by far-right allies.
A last-minute surprise is still possible, if a small dovish group is able to sneak past the electoral threshold needed to enter parliament and hold back the size of Netanyahu’s majority. But the likelihood was small, and members of Netanyahu’s expected coalition were already jockeying for portfolios in what will be Israel’s most right-wing government.
Israel held its fifth election in four years on Tuesday, a protracted political crisis that saw voters divided over Netanyahu’s fitness to serve while on trial for corruption. Some 90% of ballots were counted by Thursday morning and final results could come later in the day.
As it stands, Netanyahu and his ultranationalist and ultra-Orthodox allies are expected to secure 65 seats in Israel’s 120-seat parliament, or Knesset. His opponents in the current coalition, led by caretaker Prime Minister Yair Lapid, were expected to win 50 seats.
Netanyahu’s expected win and his likely comfortable majority puts an end to Israel’s political instability, for now. But it leaves Israelis split over their leadership and over the values that define their state: Jewish or democratic.
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, says he wants to end Palestinian autonomy in parts of the West Bank and until recently hung a photo in his home of Baruch Goldstein, an American-Israeli who killed 29 Palestinians in a West Bank shooting attack in 1993. Ben-Gvir, who promises to deport Arab legislators, 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 Netanyahu’s legal woes disappear and, along with other nationalist allies, they want to weaken the independence of the judiciary and concentrate more power in the hands of lawmakers.
The party’s leader, Bezalel Smotrich, a West Bank settler who has made anti-Arab remarks, has his sights set on the Defense Ministry, what would make him the overseer of the military and Israel’s West Bank military occupation.
As the votes were being counted, Israeli-Palestinian violence was flaring, with at least four Palestinians killed in separate incidents, and an Israeli police officer wounded lightly in a stabbing.
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 Labor party, once a mainstream fixture of Israeli politics and which supports Palestinian statehood, was teetering just 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 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. Netanyahu is likely to wrap up talks within that time, but Religious Zionism is expected to drive a hard bargain for its support.
The polarizing 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.
Netanyahu is 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.