The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Israeli results show a Netanyahu comeback powered by the far right

A supporter of Benjamin Netanyahu's Likud blows the shofar at party headquarters in Jerusalem after the announcement of exit polls in Israel's general election. (Ronen Zvulun/Reuters)

JERUSALEM — While Israeli election results indicate a slim parliamentary majority for former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, they also represent a stunning triumph for Israel’s far right — a once fringe, aggressively anti-democratic, fundamentally racist movement that may soon control some of the country’s most influential positions of power.

At its helm are Bezalel Smotrich, a self-described “proud homophobe” who has announced plans to hobble Israel’s justice system, and Itamar Ben Gvir, who has advocated expelling “disloyal” citizens of Israel, both Jewish and Arab.

“We’re demanding a change,” said Ben Gvir late Tuesday after preliminary results showed that the slate his party shares with Smotrich, known as Religious Zionism, secured about 15 seats, making it the third-largest party in Israel’s parliament, the Knesset.

“We’re demanding to make an absolute distinction between those who are loyal to Israel, with whom we have no problem at all, and those who are undermining our precious country,” he said, addressing a packed crowd of predominantly young, religious men, dancing to thumping house music while alternating between chants of “Ooh-ah! Who’s that? The next prime minister!” and “Death to terrorists!”

Israel election: A far-right politician moves closer to power

As the breadth of Netanyahu’s victory became clear Tuesday night, the former prime minister told his cheering supporters that “the country wants to bring back the national pride that has been taken away from us.”

With more than 85 percent of ballots counted by Wednesday afternoon, Netanyahu’s return to power is a near certainty. Projections by Israel’s three largest television news channels give the Netanyahu-led bloc 62 to 65 seats, more than enough for a parliamentary majority in the 120-seat Knesset.

Former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his right-wing allies won a slim majority of seats in Israel’s parliament, according to exit polls on Nov. 1. (Video: Reuters)

The bloc led by caretaker prime minister Yair Lapid, head of the centrist Yesh Atid party, is projected to get about 50 seats, and Lapid began preparing Wednesday for the transfer of power.

A Netanyahu-led government, merging the far-right Religious Zionism and the ultra-Orthodox parties Shas and United Torah Judaism, would be the most religious and right-wing in Israeli history.

“The extremist right is here to stay, and I think its becoming the third-largest party in the Israeli parliament is a sign of concern for all those in favor of democracy,” said Gayil Talshir, a political scientist at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem

Critics fear that the new government will implement legislation that further undermines Israel’s embattled democracy. Last month, Religious Zionism released a judicial reform proposal, called “the Law and Justice Plan,” that could cancel Netanyahu’s ongoing corruption trial. For years, Netanyahu has falsely claimed that the proceedings are a “witch hunt” orchestrated by the Israeli left.

More broadly, such changes could entrench state corruption, give politicians greater leverage over judicial appointments, and complicate efforts by the Supreme Court, viewed as one of Israel’s last bastions of liberal democracy, to overturn laws that violate human rights.

The two issues driving the right wing’s surge are “the theme of the legal system as a deep state” and the escalation of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict over the past decade, pollster Dahlia Scheindlin said.

Netanyahu and his allies have sought to spread distrust of the judicial system and the attorney general. “He wants the public to see [the judiciary] as fake, politicized, vindictive, conspiratorial,” Scheindlin said

The election also reflects a hardening of views over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. A spike in Palestinian attacks since the spring has intensified calls for a crackdown on Palestinians and a freer hand toward Israeli settlers in the West Bank. Escalating Israeli raids in the West Bank have put 2022 on track to be the deadliest year for Palestinians there since the United Nations began keeping records in 2005.

After Israel’s election, it’s the Palestinians who need to vote

Ben Gvir has roots in the overtly racist Kach party, founded by radical American rabbi Meir Kahane and banned by Israel. He built his legal career defending violent Jewish settlers, and has been prosecuted multiple times for inciting violence himself. A photograph of Baruch Goldstein, who killed 29 Muslim worshipers in a 1994 mosque massacre in Hebron, used to hang in his living room.

Supporters told The Washington Post on Tuesday that they voted for Ben Gvir because he backs formal annexation of the Israeli-occupied Palestinian territories and advocated the killing, rather than jailing, of alleged Palestinian militants.

Ben Gvir has demanded to be appointed public security minister, a position that oversees the police. Opponents, including some members of Israel’s security establishment, have warned that such a move would be dangerous for Israel, raising the prospect of a major escalation with the Palestinians.

The National Unity Party, led by Defense Minister Benny Gantz, said ahead of the election that as head of public security, Ben Gvir would “set fire to the country from the inside.”

Turnout in the election, Israel’s fifth in less than four years, stood at 71.3 percent, according to Israel’s Central Elections Committee. Despite widespread fatigue, Israelis voted at a rate about four percentage points higher than last year.

The final vote count, not expected until Thursday afternoon or Friday morning, could thrust Israel’s smaller parties past the electoral threshold and complicate Netanyahu’s path to power, though such an outcome appears unlikely.

Lapid’s campaign relied on securing the support of smaller parties, a gamble that seems not to have paid off. The left-wing Labor Party only narrowly passed the four-seat threshold, and another left-wing party, Meretz, as well as the Arab party Balad remained below that number.

Turnout among Palestinian citizens of Israel, who typically vote at lower rates than Jewish Israelis, was closely watched as a potentially decisive factor in the election. Israel has roughly 2 million Palestinian citizens, many of whom are descended from families that remained in Israel after the country’s founding in 1948, when many Palestinians fled or were forced from their homes.

In last year’s election, the Islamist Raam party joined Israel’s governing coalition, a first for an Arab party. But ahead of the election, Palestinian voters expressed disillusionment with Arab politicians and a Jewish-dominated political system they say marginalizes them.

Palestinian Israelis are divided and disillusioned as election nears

A last-minute push by politicians and Palestinian groups to get out the vote appears to have paid off — the voting rate among Arab citizens was estimated at around 54 percent, according to an analysis by the aChord center at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, a 10 percent increase from the last election.

But the fragmentation of the Palestinian political scene means Arab parties are likely to wind up with fewer seats than last year. The nationalist Balad party broke away from a joint list and attracted voters unwilling to cooperate with Jewish parties.

Palestinian Israeli citizen Lucy Zumot, 69, voted for Balad because she thought the party’s leader, Sami Abu Shahadeh, “says the right thing,” including that “we are in an occupation and we never forget it.”

Speaking at a polling site in East Jerusalem on Tuesday, Zumot said she wanted the government “to give me all the rights, like the Jews, and to stop fighting.”

Balad’s strong performance Tuesday was a sign of its growing support, Talshir said, especially among younger Arab voters. That support has not yet translated into enough votes to cross the threshold, however.

The 5.5 million Palestinians who live in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, meanwhile, had no say in the process, even though Israel’s new right-wing government has vowed to tighten the vise of occupation.

The rise of the far right was “a natural result of the growing manifestations of extremism and racism in Israeli society, from which our people have been suffering for years,” Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh said Wednesday.

In East Jerusalem, many Palestinians have a special residency status that allows them to live in Israel, but not to vote.

Among them is Mohammed Sarahne, 35, who works at a dessert shop in the mixed Arab-Jewish city of Ramla in central Israel.

“We must have Arab representation in the Knesset,” he said. “I live with [Israeli citizens], in the same state. I should be able to vote.”

Rubin reported from Tel Aviv. Sufian Taha in Bethlehem contributed to this report.