Former Israeli leader Benjamin Netanyahu was on the verge of making a triumphant return to office in Israel as initial exit polls showed he may have won a slim majority in the country’s fifth national election in less than four years.
If the exit polls are correct – a big if – Netanyahu and his political allies appear to be on course to win a majority of seats in the Knesset, Israel’s parliament.
As expected, the first exit polls from the country’s three main broadcasters showed late on Tuesday that no party had won enough seats to govern alone, meaning a coalition government would need to be formed.
Exit polls predicted that parties supporting Netanyahu would take 61 or 62 of the 120 seats in parliament. The alliance consists of Netanyahu’s Likud party, Religious Zionism/Jewish Power, Shas and United Torah Judaism.
The alliance supporting current incumbent Prime Minister Yair Lapid, made up of Yesh Atid, National Unity, Israel Beitenu, Labor, Meretz and Ra’am, was poised to take 54 or 55 seats, according to exit polls.
The Arab Hadash/Taal party, which is unlikely to support either party, was set to secure four seats, exit polls showed.
The election was marked by the highest voter turnout since 2015. The Central Election Commission said 71.3 percent of eligible voters cast ballots, more than in each of the last four elections that resulted in deadlocks or short-lived governments.
Netanyahu spent the closing weeks of the campaign storming the country in a truck converted into a traveling stage encased in bullet-proof glass. Ads supporting Netanyahu – and ads depicting his opponents looking shady – were plastered on the sides of buses.
It is not yet certain that Netanyahu is back after being edged out after last year’s election by Lapid.
The exit polls are just predictions based on interviews with voters on Tuesday, not official results. Results can—and have in the past—change throughout election night. The official results may not be final until Wednesday or even Thursday.
After the official results are in, President Isaac Herzog will invite the politician he thinks is most likely to be able to form a government to start coalition talks.
The return of Netanyahu to the head of the government could lead to fundamental changes in Israeli society.
Netanyahu’s government will almost certainly include the recently ascendant Jewish nationalist alliance Religious Zionism/Jewish Power, whose leaders include Itamar Ben Gvir, once convicted of inciting racism and supporting terrorism.
If the exit polls prove correct, the far-right alliance will more than double its representation in the Knesset. The group had six seats in the outgoing parliament; exit polls show them winning 14 or 15 seats this time.
Asked by CNN on Tuesday about concerns that he would lead a far-right government if returned to office, Netanyahu responded with an apparent reference to the Raham party, which made history last year by becoming the first Arab party ever to join an Israeli governing coalition.
“We don’t want a government with the Muslim Brotherhood, which supports terrorism, denies the existence of Israel and is quite hostile to the United States. This is what we will bring,” Netanyahu told CNN in English at his polling station in Jerusalem.
And Netanyahu’s allies talked about changes in the judicial system. This could end Netanyahu’s corruption trial, where he has pleaded not guilty.
Netanyahu himself was one of the main issues not only in Tuesday’s election but in the four that preceded it, with voters – and politicians – splitting into camps based on whether or not they wanted the man known as Bibi in power.
Part of the difficulty in building a stable government over the past four elections has been that even some political parties that agree with Netanyahu on issues refuse to work with him for their own personal or political reasons.
Whether the exit polls are true or not, they are only exit polls, not official results.
It will take some time to get the official results – they may be ready as early as Wednesday, but it could be Thursday before the final composition of Israel’s 25th Knesset is clear.
This is partly due to the fact that parties must win at least 3.25% of the total vote to get any seats in the Knesset at all, a threshold established in an attempt to facilitate coalition building by keeping very small parties out of the legislature.
To determine how many seats each party gets, election officials must first determine which parties have passed the threshold. They can then calculate how many votes are needed to win a seat in the Knesset and allocate seats to parties based on the number of votes they receive.
This is when the real spin and deal begins.
There’s a slim chance that even if the election results look like a stalemate, a smart negotiator can pull together a surprise coalition, as Lapid did last year.
On the other hand, even if on paper it looks like one or the other leader has the support to form a majority government, they will still have to coax the smaller parties into coalition deals.
And these smaller parties will have demands – control over certain ministries, funding projects or programs important to their constituents, introducing new laws or abolishing old ones.
Potential prime ministers will have to balance the competing demands of rival coalition partners, each known to hold the keys to appointing the head of government.
And whoever becomes prime minister – if anyone does – will face the same problems.
The cost of living is skyrocketing in Israel, as in many other places, with energy and grocery bills. A survey by the Israel Democracy Institute this summer found that a party’s economic platform is by far the factor most often cited as a reason for choosing who to vote for. Nearly half (44%) of Israeli voters said this was the most important factor, well ahead of a quarter (24%) who said the party leader was the deciding factor.
Any new prime minister will also have to confront the conflict between Israel and Palestinian militias, which has claimed more lives on both sides this year than at any time since 2015.
The Israel Defense Forces have been carrying out frequent raids for months in the occupied West Bank – particularly Jenin and Nablus – saying they are trying to capture known attackers and seize weapons.
As a strategy, it does not appear to have reduced the level of violence: At least one Israeli civilian was shot and killed near Hebron in the West Bank on Saturday, and others were wounded in the same incident – as were two medics who responded, one Israeli and one Palestinian . A day later, a Palestinian rammed his car into five Israeli soldiers near Jericho. Both Palestinian attackers were killed in a cycle of violence that the new prime minister will have to deal with – if there is indeed a new prime minister as a result of Tuesday’s vote.