With television exit polls showing him sweeping back into power with his far-right and ultra-Orthodox allies, opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu told supporters early Wednesday morning that he was “on the cusp of a huge victory,” promising a government that would restore pride to Israel and make it strong once again.
“If the actual results reflect the exit polls, I’ll set up a national government that will look after all the citizens of Israel,” he told supporters, using a word for “national” that is also used to describe nationalist sentiment.
Earlier, his chief rival Prime Minister Yair Lapid refused to concede defeat, telling party faithful in Tel Aviv to wait until all votes were counted and saying his Yesh Atid party had secured record levels of support.
“They want politics not based on hate and incitement,” Lapid said of his voters, railing against sectoral politics.
Polls from Israel’s major networks released Tuesday night gave Netanyahu a clear path back to power, with 62 seats between his Likud faction, the far-right Religious Zionism and the Haredi parties Shas and United Torah Judaism. At least 61 seats are needed to secure a majority and form a government in the 120-seat Knesset.
As pollsters revised their findings and early returns began to come in overnight, the numbers only shifted more in Netanyahu’s favor, with the leftist Meretz party, a lynchpin of any possible Lapid-led government, skirting dangerously close to the 3.25% percent, four-seat threshold needed to enter the Knesset.
However, exit poll results have proven to be misleading in the past, and it will likely take days until results are made final, with the complicated coalition landscape leaving open the possibility of the margin between a clear winner and another stalemate amounting to only a few thousand votes.
Speaking to supporters at 3 a.m. at a campaign party in Jerusalem’s cavernous International Convention Center, Netanyahu called the projected results a “huge expression of faith.”
“Our way, Likud’s way, has proven itself,” he said.
As supporters chanted “Bibi is back,” and “Bibi, king of Israel,” referring to Netanyahu by his nickname, he stopped to correct them. “I’m not a king, because I need to be voted in and I will be voted in, thanks to you” he shouted.
Paying homage to gains by his far-right and religious allies, who were projected to win between 30 and 32 seats, the same as his Likud, he vowed repeatedly to return strength and security to the country.
“It’s very clear the nation wants a different way,” he said. “It wants security. a reduced cost of living. It wants power, it doesn’t want weakness.”
If confirmed, the exit poll projections would mark a stunning comeback for Netanyahu, currently on trial in three corruption cases, and end four years of political stalemates that have dragged the country through a series of elections.
But critics warn that it could also hand power to politicians on the extreme right, particularly ultra-nationalist Otzma Yehudit party leader Itamar Ben Gvir, who could strip Arabs of rights, defang the Supreme Court and pass legislation that will do away with Netanyahu’s legal woes, ratcheting up societal divisions.
Netanyahu claimed Israelis “want a Jewish state — a state that respects its citizens, but this is a Jewish state.”
But he also struck a conciliatory note, promising to “act to lower the flames of public discourse, to heal the rifts — not only to widen the peace with our neighbors, but also to restore the internal peace within.”
And tellingly, he did not name his likely coalition partners, leading some analysts to believe he may attempt to leave the door open to other coalition constellations, with negotiations and jockeying between parties likely already underway.
His pool of possible partners may be limited, though, with the parties backing Lapid having promised to not support a Netanyahu-led government.
Earlier, Lapid touted the achievements of his coalition, which managed to oust Netanyahu from power after 12 years at the nation’s helm but only lasted 17 months.
“Over the last year and a half there was a government here of fair, upright and good people, who worked hard and created something unprecedented,” Lapid said.
“Every Israeli needs to know tonight that we’ll continue to fight for Israel to be a Jewish and democratic state, liberal and advanced,” Lapid said.
As of 4 a.m. Wednesday, exit polls showed Likud with between 30 and 32 seats, Yesh Atid with 22-23 and Religious Zionism with 13-15.
The polls will continually be updated throughout the night to reflect real results as officials tally the 4,843,023 ballots cast in the election — the highest turnout since 2015, at 71.3%.
Netanyahu’s far-right and religious allies celebrated after exit polls were released on Tuesday night.
Speaking at his own faction event, Ben Gvir said the country wanted “a leadership that will preserve the Land of Israel… and settle Judea and Samaria,” referring to the West Bank by its Biblical names.
Vowing to “act against firebomb and stone throwers,” he noted that he would fight to differentiate between Zionists and those who work “to undermine our existence here,” to which the crowd responded with chants of “Death to terrorists!”
Days before the election, Ben Gvir said he would demand the public security portfolio in order to implement reforms in the police that would allow for a harsher hand against Arab Israeli and Palestinian protesters, along with suspects in the Negev region where crime rates are high.
The prospect of a cabinet that includes Ben Gvir, a former follower of the late extremist rabbi Meir Kahana, has spooked critics at home and abroad, who have warned of an erosion of equality and a rise in racist policies.
In his own address to Religious Zionism supporters after the polls closed, party leader Bezalel Smotrich crowed that “we managed to bring down the bad [outgoing] government, and with God’s help we’ll set up a Jewish, nationalist, Zionist government,” he said.
Shas leader Aryeh Deri, whose party firmly backs Netanyahu, hailed the “incredible achievement” for his ultra-Orthodox party, which was set for its best showing since 2013.
Deri pledged that Shas will look out for “the weakest communities” in Israeli society and will “strengthen the Jewish identity of Israel and fight against the cost of living.”
Exit polls gave Shas 10 seats and United Torah Judaism another seven. Meanwhile parties backing Lapid, including his Yesh Atid, were projected to win between 53 and 54 seats, with National Unity getting 11-13, Yisrael Beytenu between five and six, Labor another five, Ra’am and Hadash-Ta’al between four and five each and Meretz at four.
Like in the 2021 election when Ra’am managed to cross the electoral threshold after failing to do so in the exit polls, a similar scenario could again unfold on Wednesday. At least one Arab party, Balad, hovered just below the threshold, and a second or third Arab party making it into the Knesset along with Ra’am could tip the scale back toward a split between the pro- and anti-Netanyahu blocs.
At the same time, Meretz, which was projected to slide back into the Knesset, appeared in danger of falling below the threshold, a scenario that would benefit Netanyahu.
With about one-quarter of votes counted, both Meretz and Ra’am were sitting at 2.76%, though results can be skewed depending on where the counted votes came from.
Israel has been rocked by political turmoil since a Netanyahu-led government fell apart in late 2018. Two rounds of elections, in April 2019 and September 2019, failed to yield a winner, and a short-lived unity government formed after the third vote in March 2020 collapsed after less than a year.
Starting in June 2021, Lapid’s unlikely coalition, which he helmed with his predecessor as premier Naftali Bennett, managed to push Netanyahu from power after over a decade, but the alliance, which included right-wing Yamina and Islamist Ra’am, struggled to overcome deep ideological divisions and collapsed, partly due to pressure from Netanyahu and his allies.
Jacob Magid and Carrie Keller-Lynn contributed to this report.