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Netanyahu is set for comeback in Israel with far-right firebrand

Nov. 2, 2022 Updated Wed., Nov. 2, 2022 at 6:33 p.m.

Israel’s ex-premier and leader of the Likud party Benjamin Netanyahu, flanked by his wife Sara, addresses supporters at campaign headquarters in Jerusalem early on November 2, 2022, after the end of voting for national elections. – Netanyahu inched towards reclaiming power after projected election results showed a majority government was within reach for the veteran right-winger, but the outlook could shift as ballots are counted.  (MENAHEM KAHANA/Getty Images North America/TNS)
Israel’s ex-premier and leader of the Likud party Benjamin Netanyahu, flanked by his wife Sara, addresses supporters at campaign headquarters in Jerusalem early on November 2, 2022, after the end of voting for national elections. – Netanyahu inched towards reclaiming power after projected election results showed a majority government was within reach for the veteran right-winger, but the outlook could shift as ballots are counted. (MENAHEM KAHANA/Getty Images North America/TNS)
By Gwen Ackerman and Daniel Avis Bloomberg News

Israel’s fifth election in four years looked set to return Benjamin Netanyahu to power, with the votes counted until now suggesting his strategy of forming an alliance with the nation’s far right has succeeded.

Israeli television channels put Netanyahu’s bloc in the lead with as many as 65 seats in parliament, enough to form a majority in the 120-member body. Results could change in coming hours or days as more votes are tallied.

“Bibi, king of Israel,” shouted his supporters as the real count started to trickle in and also showed Netanyahu in the lead. “Today we won a tremendous vote of confidence,” the former premier told supporters in Jerusalem, cautioning that the final vote would take time to come in. “We are on the verge of a great victory.” Election officials have counted 84% of the votes so far.

Netanyahu chose to lean on support from a number of once-fringe politicians whose stances on minority rights – particularly Arab-Israeli and Palestinian rights – have deepened domestic tensions and drawn rebuke from the U.S. Among them is Itamar Ben-Gvir, a 46-year-old lawyer who said before the vote that he intends to be public security minister – a role that would give him oversight of the country’s police forces.

Ben-Gvir made a name for himself as the youth leader of the Kach party, an ultra-nationalist group that was banned from politics and designated a terrorist organization by Israel and the U.S. As a lawyer, he defended Jews accused of attacks against Palestinians.

Israeli politics have been deadlocked between two factions, firmly divided by their support or opposition to Netanyahu, 73, who’s fighting corruption charges and who, before stepping down in 2021, was Israel’s longest-serving prime minister.

The election on Tuesday saw the highest turnout in seven years, with the far-right bloc backing Netanyahu rallying voters behind a vision of strengthening the nation’s Jewish identity.

“We had no illusions that the ballot boxes in the Israeli elections would produce a partner for peace in light of the aggressive policies and practices that our people suffer from,” said Palestinian Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh.

As leader of the Jewish Power party, Ben-Gvir’s policy proposals have included granting immunity from prosecution to Israeli soldiers confronting “terrorists,” and dismantling the Palestinian Authority, the internationally recognized governing authority over many Palestinian towns and cities in the West Bank.

“A Netanyahu-led government is going to have to interact with the world, and it’s not going to be easy to explain the positions of Ben-Gvir to, for example, the Biden administration,” Michael Oren, a former Israeli ambassador to the U.S, said in a phone interview shortly after exit polls were announced.

Netanyahu’s opponents have been determined to prevent his return to power since the corruption charges were brought against him, while supporters say he’s the subject of a witch hunt, and the only leader in Israel who can bring back political stability after a series of shaky and unlikely coalitions collapsed.

Netanyahu convened a conference call with all his potential coalition partners to discuss the possibility of fraudulent votes for the opposition, according to his Likud party spokesperson.

If the votes hold, the next government is likely to propose a series of measures “that would seek to politicize the judiciary and weaken the checks and balances that exist between the branches of government and serve as the fundamental components of Israeli democracy,” said Yohanan Plesner, president of the Israel Democracy Institute.

As a prime minister who led the country from 2009 until last year, Netanyahu has campaigned against the current government’s handling of the growing cost of living.

Inflation has exceeded the government’s 1% to 3% target range since the start of the year, prompting the central bank to embark on the longest cycle of interest-rate hikes in decades.

With price pressures unlikely to abate, the election’s outcome may result in a “more cautious” Bank of Israel, according to Yonie Fanning, market economist for Mizrahi-Tefahot.

“We anticipate that the new government will target an increase in fiscal spending, though that was running somewhat low in recent months,” Fanning said. “Some pick-up of inflation expectations may be warranted, more so given the demand for wage gains at the public sector.”

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