Former Israeli Prime Minister and the head of Likud party, Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife Sara gesture after first exit poll results for the Israeli Parliamentary election at his party's headquarters in Jerusalem, on November 2, 2022. Image Credit: AP

JERUSALEM: 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.

“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 86 per cent of the votes so far.

Netanyahu concluded his recent autobiography “Bibi: My Story” with a declaration that his time on the opposition benches, after an election loss in 2021, was a “hiatus” and that great tasks lay ahead.

Published just before the election and on wide display outside voting stations on election day, the book is imbued with Netanyahu’s confidence that he would retake top office soon.

Israel’s longest-serving prime minister, who has dominated the country’s politics for more than a decade, is now set to form what looks like being one of the most right-wing governments in Israel’s history.

Netanyahu has pledged to build on the achievement of his last term in office, the Abraham Accords with the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, that opened the way for a possible normalisation of relations with other Arab countries.

Netanyahu has been flanked on the right in previous governments and still managed to normalize ties with Arab states in the Gulf and, as a free-market champion, oversee impressive economic growth. Image Credit: AP

Attention on far-right

But most attention has been focused on his alliance with the far-right Religious Zionism party and its co-leader Itamar Ben-Gvir, who was convicted in 2007 of racist incitement against Arabs and who until recently was advocating expelling Palestinians from Israel.

The two aspects underline the challenges facing Netanyahu as he begins preparations to form a government where he will face pressure to award plum posts to Ben-Gvir and his partners while calming concerns from allies including the United States.

On trial for corruption over bribery and other charges which he denies, Netanyahu looks set to depend on support from Religious Zionism and two smaller religious parties.

Those parties have been more willing to set aside Netanyahu’s legal troubles and critics say that with help from the far-right, Netanyahu may seek radical judicial reforms that could potentially save him from conviction and imprisonment.

In return, he may have to hand over ministries that have a direct hand in setting Israel’s defence and economic policies.

Netanyahu has been flanked on the right in previous governments and still managed to normalize ties with Arab states in the Gulf and, as a free-market champion, oversee impressive economic growth.

Iran nuclear programme

But he was also more willing to publicly confront the United States over Iran’s nuclear programme than the outgoing government, something that soured ties with Washington.

Large sections of his autobiography deal with his sometimes tempestuous but fundamentally strong relations with former US President Donald Trump, while he will now have to deal with a more sceptical White House under Joe Biden.

Israeli politics have been deadlocked between two factions, firmly divided by their support or opposition to Netanyahu, 73.

A sign reading "Bibi", nickname of Likud party leader Benjamin Netanyahu, is seen on a supporter's head, following the announcement of exit polls in Israel's general election, at the party headquarters in Jerusalem November 2, 2022. Image Credit: Reuters

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 US, 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.

Building responsible coalition

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.

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 per cent to 3 per cent 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.”

On Wednesday, perhaps trying to allay fears abroad, he voiced confidence he would be able to build a responsible coalition that would avoid “unnecessary adventures” and “expand the circle of peace”.

How to square that circle with the fiery rhetoric of his allies will test all his political skills.