JERUSALEM — Former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu appeared well placed to return to power after exit polls following Tuesday’s election showed his right-wing bloc heading for a narrow majority lifted by a strong showing from his far-right allies.
Israel’s longest-serving premier, on trial over corruption charges which he denies, was poised to take 61-62 seats in the 120-seat Knesset, according to Israeli television exit polls.
The early exit polls may differ from the final result of the election, which is not expected until later in the week but the results pointed to a stronger-than-expected showing by the right.
Israel’s fifth election in less than four years exasperated many Israeli voters.
The campaign was shaken up by right-wing firebrand Itamar Ben-Gvir and his ultra-nationalist Religious Zionism bloc, now poised to be the third-largest party with 15 seats in parliament.
Security on the streets and surging prices topped the list of voter concerns in a campaign triggered by defections from Prime Minister Yair Lapid’s unlikely ruling coalition of right-wing, liberal and Arab parties.
But policy issues have been overshadowed by the outsized personality of Netanyahu, whose legal battles have fed the stalemate blocking Israel’s political system since he was indicted on bribery, fraud and breach of trust charges in 2019.
Netanyahu, 73, has been counting on support from Ben-Gvir and fellow far-right leader Bezalel Smotrich. The prospect of Ben-Gvir, a former member of Kach, a group on Israeli and U.S. terrorist watchlists, joining a coalition risks alarming allies including Washington.
The campaign, which opened weeks after a brief conflict with the militant Islamic Jihad group in Gaza in August, has also unrolled against a backdrop of increasing violence in the occupied West Bank, with near-daily raids and clashes.
(Additional reporting by Emily Rose, Ari Rabinovitch, James Mackenzie, Henriette Chacar; Editing by Howard Goller)