Is Bibi back?
Exit polls late Tuesday after Israel’s fifth national election in less than four years suggested that former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his far-right allies may have secured enough parliamentary seats — barely — to plan his return as the country’s leader.
If the official record is confirmed, the result would mark the latest turning point in the political fortunes of Netanyahu – commonly known by his nickname Bibi – a polarizing but charismatic figure on trial for corruption and ousted from power last year.
The prospect of a nationalist-religious government led by 73-year-old Netanyahu alarmed many Israelis, as did the apparent rise of far-right politician Itamar Ben Gvir, a once fringe figure angered by critics for racism against Palestinians. Exit polls by the three main Israeli broadcasters indicated that Ben Gvir’s party, Religious Zionism, would emerge as the third largest party in the Knesset, Israel’s parliament.
Experts note that the official count has deviated from exit polls in the past. But if the preliminary figures prove correct, Netanyahu and his coalition partners – including religious Zionism – would get at least the 61 votes needed for a Knesset majority. A final balance sheet is not expected until Friday.
Turnout was high despite – or perhaps because of – the exhaustion of the political deadlock that has plagued the country for almost four years.
If Netanyahu were reinstated as prime minister, he would be in a better position to fight the charges against him. He has repeatedly denounced prosecutors and judges for engaging in a “witch hunt,” raising fears among opponents that he poses an ongoing threat to the rule of law and Israeli democracy.
Netanyahu’s main rival is Yair Lapid, the centrist interim prime minister. Neither Lapid’s party, Yesh Atid, nor Netanyahu’s Likud party came anywhere close to a parliamentary majority, but ahead of the vote both sought support from smaller parties across the ideological spectrum to secure a governing majority.
Typically, the president gives the party with the largest parliamentary representation the first chance to form a coalition with smaller parties, a process that can end in deadlock or drag on for weeks.
The fragile opposition coalition behind Netanyahu’s dramatic ouster in 2021 disintegrated earlier this year and the recent elections – like those before – were seen as a referendum on him. His conservative supporters support increased control of daily life by religious authorities and an uncompromising stance towards the Palestinians.
Yohanan Plesner, President of the Israel Democracy Institute, said the potential new coalition will “seek to politicize the judiciary and weaken the control mechanisms that exist between branches of government and serve as fundamental components of Israeli democracy.”
Forming and holding a new government together would be a challenge even for Netanyahu, who is known as a political survivor. En route to that election, he veered into an all-out embrace of far-right figures, including Ben Gvir, the one-time protégé of a racist rabbi who was assassinated in the 1990s, and Bezalel Smotrich, whose extreme views are increasingly part of the Israeli political mainstream.
Ben Gvir is known for inflammatory gestures like brandishing a pistol in a Jerusalem neighborhood that has seen years of angry Palestinian protests and urging police to use deadly force against stone-throwing protesters. If his party is part of the winning coalition, he should try to become head of the police ministry.
Despite the controversy that has surrounded Netanyahu for years, he enjoys a fiercely loyal base of support even after he was tried for fraud, breach of trust and taking bribes. He has vehemently denied any wrongdoing.
The exit polls were welcome news for Yedidyah Furman, a 24-year-old who cast his ballot for Ben Gvir’s party in Raanana, near Tel Aviv.
“I think this shows that the Israeli public is looking for leadership that will restore safety to the streets and leadership that will preserve and respect Israel’s Jewish tradition,” Furman said.
Benjamin Brown, a professor of Jewish thought at the Hebrew University, said Netanyahu’s alliances reaffirm his willingness to make any compromises he deems necessary to return to power.
“Politicians look for allies when they don’t want them, but realize that this is a way of trying to form a coalition,” he said.
Netanyahu led the failed Israeli-Palestinian peace talks in 2014 and the 11-day battle between Israel and Hamas, a Palestinian militant group that rules Gaza, in May 2021 that killed at least 230 Palestinians and at least 12 Israelis.
His government enacted a law in 2018 proclaiming that the right to national self-determination in Israel was reserved only for Jews and downgrading the status of the Arabic language.
The eight-party alliance that ousted Netanyahu in 2021, who had refused to step down amid corruption allegations, had little in common other than a desire to get rid of him. After exits cost the coalition the seats it needed to survive, new elections were called, opening the door to a comeback for Netanyahu, the country’s longest-serving prime minister.
When Netanyahu’s legal problems caught up with him and led to court cases, some former allies refused to sit in his coalition. After previous elections, this has thwarted his efforts to gain a majority in the Knesset.
Now some of those he is expected to bring into his coalition have indicated they will seek to change the code so that he can avoid conviction or jail time.
Leila Miller reported from Tel Aviv and Laura King from Washington, DC
https://www.latimes.com/world-nation/story/2022-11-01/israeli-election-exit-polls-netanyahu Exit polls suggest a Netanyahu victory in Israeli election