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As Israel’s Netanyahu nears victory, trouble could arise

JERUSALEM — After four inconclusive elections, it seems the fifth time has finally worked for Benjamin Netanyahu.

Israel’s longtime former prime minister and current opposition leader appears to have engineered a surprise victory in the country’s fifth national vote since 2019, thanks to help from an extremist far-right party. This alliance, however, could have profound implications – potentially ending his legal troubles at home while antagonizing his friends abroad.

With nearly 90% of ballots counted on Wednesday, all signs pointed to a victory for Netanyahu and his religious and nationalist allies. The count, including 450,000 mail-in ballots, was due to be completed on Thursday.

Tuesday’s election, like the previous four, was seen largely as a referendum on Netanyahu’s fitness to rule while facing corruption charges. And again, opinion polls predicted the continuation of the stalemate that had paralyzed the political system for three and a half years.

But Netanyahu, Israel’s longest-serving prime minister who earned a reputation as a political mastermind during a total of 15 years in power, appears to have outmaneuvered his opponents with a disciplined campaign.

Israeli media described Netanyahu as the winner on Wednesday, although he has yet to declare victory and his main rival, caretaker Prime Minister Yair Lapid, did not relent as the vote count continued.

Israelis vote for parties, not individual candidates, and coalition building is necessary to secure a government majority in parliament.

According to official results from Israel’s Central Election Commission, the popular vote was almost evenly split between parties loyal to Netanyahu and those backing Lapid.

But Netanyahu, who has been opposition leader for a year and a half, has worked diligently to shore up his bloc of allies with a series of cooperation agreements and mergers to ensure no votes are lost. . His ultra-Orthodox religious allies, who joined him in opposition, worked hard to ensure strong turnout.

Politicians on the Israeli left, by contrast, have been torn apart by infighting, leaving one or two small parties below the threshold required to enter parliament. This means that all their votes are lost. As a result, Netanyahu is expected to control up to 65 seats in the 120-seat parliament.

“Netanyahu took charge of his bloc and designed a political architecture without leaks, which ensured that 100% of the votes contributed to victory, where the other side was in some measure in disarray,” said Yohanan Plesner, president. of Israel Democracy. Institute, a Jerusalem think tank.

Netanyahu has also tapped into the growing popularity of Religious Zionism, a far-right party whose leaders are openly anti-Arab and oppose LGBTQ rights.

Once considered a fringe phenomenon, the party has become the third largest in parliament, largely thanks to the popularity of lawmaker Itamar Ben-Gvir.

This alliance could prove to be a mixed blessing for Netanyahu.

If he succeeds in putting together a governing coalition in the coming weeks, members of religious Zionism, as well as members of Netanyahu’s own Likud party, have made no secret that they will seek to radically reform the country’s legal system in favor of Netanyahu.

Simcha Rothman, a member of Religious Zionism, said the country’s attorney general should be worried about his job. Others seek to control judicial appointments and want to pass legislation that would allow parliament to overrule unfavorable court decisions.

Ben-Gvir said he would even push for legislation that would grant immunity and dismiss charges against Netanyahu, who is accused of fraud, breach of trust and accepting bribes in a series of scandals.

“If the right-wing bloc retains its advantage in the final tally, Netanyahu can form the government of his dreams,” wrote Matti Tuchfeld, a commentator for the conservative Israel Hayom newspaper. “Perhaps most importantly: none of the lawmakers… will oppose any measures to change the justice system, including measures relating to Netanyahu’s trial.

While this could benefit Netanyahu at home, it could also cause him serious problems internationally.

Ben-Gvir is a follower of racist Rabbi Meir Kahane, whose views against Arabs were considered so repugnant that he was banned from the Knesset in the 1980s and whose Kach party was labeled a terrorist group by states United States Kahane was assassinated by an Arab assailant in the United States in 1990.

Ben-Gvir, a lawyer who has spent his career defending Jewish extremists accused of violence against Palestinians, has become one of Israel’s most popular politicians, thanks to his frequent media appearances, his cheerful attitude and its orchestrated stunts.

He has called Arab lawmakers “terrorists” and called for their expulsion, and recently brandished a handgun in a tense Palestinian neighborhood of Jerusalem as he urged police to shoot Palestinian stone-throwers.

Trying to capitalize on a recent spike in violence in the West Bank, he and his allies hope to grant immunity to Israeli soldiers who shoot Palestinians and want to impose the death penalty on Palestinians convicted of attacking Jews. Ben-Gvir said he would run for the ministerial post putting him in charge of the national police.

During the campaign, he railed against Lapid for allowing an Arab party to be part of the incumbent government. His campaign slogan, referring to Arabs, called for showing Israel’s enemies “whose house belongs”.

While such views have endeared him to his religious and nationalist supporters, they risk creating headaches for Netanyahu, who presents himself as a global statesman.

US President Joe Biden, who has had a hot and cold relationship with Netanyahu, is a supporter of Palestinian independence. He is unlikely to like the combative Ben-Gvir and his colleagues.

Likewise, American Jews, who tend to be politically liberal, might also struggle to support a government in which Ben-Gvir plays a prominent role.

In a meeting last week with American Jewish leaders, Israeli President figurehead Isaac Herzog asked the public to “respect other people’s democracies.”

Jeremy Ben-Ami, president of J Street, a liberal pro-Israel group in Washington, called the results “deeply disturbing.”

“The likely formation of an ultra-right Netanyahu government should force a moment of serious wake-up call for all Americans who care about the nature of US-Israel relations,” he said.

Michael Oren, Israel’s former ambassador to the United States, said if Ben-Gvir was allowed to advance some of his proposals, such as deporting the families of Palestinian attackers, it could strain ties.

“I think he’s going to pose some challenges,” Oren said.


AP correspondent Eleanor Reich contributed reporting.

ABC News

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