The party of Israel’s veteran ex-premier Benjamin Netanyahu was set to come first in Tuesday’s vote, initial projections indicated, but there was no guarantee he could form a government.
The projections showed the hawkish politician, Israel’s longest serving premier, could clinch a narrow majority with the anticipated backing of ultra-Orthodox Jewish and far-right parties.
However, the tally could shift as official results come in, and whoever is tapped to form a government will need support from multiple smaller parties to clinch a 61-seat majority in the 120-seat legislature.
If the first forecasts hold, that would end the short reign of an alliance of eight parties under centrist caretaker Prime Minister Yair Lapid that managed to oust Netanyahu last year before itself collapsing.
The margins appeared wafer-thin, as expected in the bitterly divided nation holding its fifth election in less than four years, but the early signs were positive for the 73-year-old leader of the right-wing Likud party.
Projections from three Israeli networks put Likud on track for a first place finish, within 30 or 31 seats in the 120-member parliament, the Knesset.
That number, combined with projected tallies for the extreme-right Religious Zionism alliance and the two ultra-Orthodox Jewish parties gave the bloc backing Netanyahu between 61 or 62 seats, the first projections showed.
But those can change, and previous Israeli elections have showed that slight variations as the votes are officially counted can dramatically alter the outlook.
– High turnout –
Lapid’s Yesh Atid was on track for its expected second place finish, with projections giving it between 22 and 24 seats.
But the anti-Netanyahu bloc as a whole was short of a win, according to the early forecasts from networks.
The head of the Israel Democracy Institute think-tank, Yohanan Plesner, told AFP that “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”.
Tuesday’s vote follows the collapse of a coalition that last year united eight disparate parties and ousted Netanyahu, ending his record run as prime minister — but which ultimately failed to achieve political stability.
Netanyahu is on trial over corruption charges he denies, but the case has not dented support among his unfailingly loyal base.
Amid the grinding political deadlock, concerns about voter fatigue were widespread, but 8:00 pm (1800 GMT) figures showed the highest turnout since 1999.
– ‘Coalition of extremists’ –
Extreme-right leader Itamar Ben-Gvir will be key to helping Netanyahu return to power with his Religious Zionism bloc on track for an estimated 14 seats, according to the first projections.
Ben-Gvir, who wants Israel to annex the entire West Bank, promised a “full right-wing government” led by Netanyahu, after voting near his settlement home.
Justice Minister Gideon Saar, a former Likud heavyweight who broke with Netanyahu and now leads his own party, warned early Tuesday that Israel risked electing a “coalition of extremists”.
The vote was held against a backdrop of soaring violence across Israeli-annexed east Jerusalem and the occupied West Bank.
At least 29 Palestinians and three Israelis were killed across the two territories in October, according to an AFP tally.
While many candidates have cited security as a concern, none have pledged to revive moribund peace talks with the Palestinians.
– ‘No change’ –
The soaring cost of living has been a hot issue this election as Israelis, having long endured high prices, are feeling the pinch even more amid global economic turmoil linked to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Lapid was the architect of the last coalition, which for the first time brought an independent Arab party into the fold and included others from the right and left.
The unlikely alliance of the last government was made possible after Mansour Abbas pulled his Raam party from a united slate with other Arab-led parties, paving the way for him to join the coalition.
But Raam’s pioneering support for a coalition was not viewed positively across Arab society, which makes up around 20 percent of Israel’s population.
“He tried, but he didn’t bring anything. No change, no money,” said voter Faris Mansour from the central Arab town of Tirah.
Raam was however projected to re-enter parliament, earning an estimated five seats, according to the first projections.