Former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu appeared on the verge of a remarkable comeback as exit polls suggested he and his conservative political allies won just enough seats to once again form a government.
Mr. Netanyahu, who has been battling charges of corruption as he tries to reclaim the job he held for more than a decade before his ouster in 2021, was poised to command the 61 seats needed to control the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, although the size of his majority is not expected to be large.
As with every election since April 2019, the pro- and anti-Netanyahu factions in Israeli politics appear to be almost perfectly balanced. Mr. Netanyahu may owe his win, should it hold up, to the stunning success of the ultraconservative Religious Zionist party, which appears poised to be the Knesset’s third-largest party and includes controversial lawmaker Itamar Ben-Gvir.
Mr. Netanyahu — and whether he should stay or go — has been the central focus of four inconclusive Israeli elections in just the past four years. An unwieldy, spectrum-spanning coalition headed by current Prime Minister Yair Lapid managed to take power in 2021, united mainly by their mutual distrust of Mr. Netanyahu. The government could not hold on to power given its deep ideological divisions.
The exit poll results from Israel’s three major television stations may differ from the final tally expected later in the week, but the results pointed to a stronger-than-expected showing by Mr. Netanyahu’s Likud party and others on the right. Mr. Netanyahu himself was taking a cautious approach.
“It’s a good start; that’s all I can say right now,” he told reporters as the first preliminary projections were coming in. “It can flip. We don’t know. … We’re alive and kicking, possibly before a great victory, but we have to wait until the morning.”
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The final numbers will not be announced until Friday, and prime minister nominations will be put off until next week.
One wild card: A small Arab nationalist party may reach the threshold to qualify for four seats, effectively eliminating Mr. Netanyahu’s path to a majority. Deals on policy and Cabinet posts are likely to be discussed intently as the final, official numbers come in.
A Netanyahu win, should it hold up, could pose a fresh foreign policy headache for President Biden and his administration, which has had prickly relations with the hawkish prime minister over the years. Mr. Netanyahu is a staunch opponent of the Iran nuclear deal that Mr. Biden is trying to revive, and the former — and perhaps future — prime minister forged a tight bond with President Trump while in office.
The U.S. and United Arab Emirates governments reportedly have sent private messages of concern about far-right parties that could end up in Mr. Netanyahu’s coalition, warnings Mr. Netanyahu has dismissed.
The centrist Mr. Lapid had focused on Mr. Netanyahu’s reliance on those far-right parties in his latest bid to reclaim power. “Vote for Israel and for the future of our children,” Mr. Lapid said while casting his ballot in an upscale Tel Aviv neighborhood.
Mr. Ben-Gvir is likely to face far more scrutiny now that he stands as a potential power-broker for the next Israeli government and a potential Cabinet member. He is a disciple of an assassinated ultra-right rabbi whom many condemned as racist and has backed a hard line against the Palestinians.
He has promised to help build a “fully right-wing government” with Mr. Netanyahu should they form a ruling coalition.
The Associated Press reported sounds of cheering at the Jerusalem headquarters of Mr. Ben-Gvir’s party late Tuesday, with supporters dancing with Israeli and party flags. Bezalel Smotrich, head of the Religious Zionist party that includes Mr. Ben-Gvir’s faction, hailed the projected results as historic.
The party, which won just six votes in the last election, is expected to jump to 13 or 14 seats, the exit polls said.
Mr. Netanyahu’s Likud party is projected to control the largest faction in the Knesset with 30 or 31 seats, and with likely allies on the right is set to win 61 or 62 seats overall based on the preliminary numbers.
Mr. Lapid’s Yesh Atid party was forecast to win 24 seats, with likely allies boosting the total to 54 seats overall. Another four seats would go to an alliance of Arab Jewish parties and supporters, which could lend its support to Mr. Lapid.
Overall, 36 parties contested the election. Despite widespread complaints from Israeli voters over the numbing series of indecisive votes in recent years, turnout was unexpectedly strong at more than 66%, the highest since 1999.
Whether the exit poll projections stand as the final votes are counted in the coming days, Israel’s era of deep political polarization shows no signs of easing.
“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,” Yohanan Plesner, president of the Israel Democracy Institute, an independent think tank, told AP.
If Mr. Netanyahu hangs on to win, the next government “is poised to propose a series of reforms that would seek to politicize the judiciary and weaken the checks and balances that exist between the branches of government and serve as fundamental components of Israeli democracy,” he warned.
Palestinians, who have experienced a recent surge of violence as the Lapid government cracked down on security threats, saw little to celebrate in the election results.
“The outcome of this election will be a government that will continue conducting crimes against our people while blocking the horizon for a political solution,” said Wasel Abu Youssef, a senior official of the Palestine Liberation Organization.
• This article is based in part on wire service reports.