Israel election tightly poised as former PM Netanyahu bids for comeback

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Israelis began voting for the fifth time in less than four years on Tuesday, with former premier Benjamin Netanyahu bidding for a comeback in a race likely to turn on a far-right party that has risen from the fringe to become a potential coalition kingmaker.

After years of deadlock, voter exasperation may hurt turnout, but surging support for the ultra-nationalist Religious Zionism bloc and firebrand co-leader Itamar Ben-Gvir has galvanized the campaign.

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Israel’s longest-serving premier, Netanyahu is on trial on corruption charges, which he denies, but his rightist Likud party is still expected to finish as the largest in parliament.

However the final opinion polls from last week showed him still short of the 61 seats needed for a majority in the 120-seat Knesset, opening the prospect of weeks of coalition wrangling and possibly new elections.

“There’s a feeling of despair at all these elections,” said Hagit Cohen, a 46-year-old social worker from Tel Aviv. She said she was voting for outgoing centrist Prime Minister Yair Lapid rather than the center-left parties she normally backed.

Security and surging prices have topped the list of voter concerns in a campaign triggered by defections from the unlikely ruling coalition of right-wing, centrist and Arab parties formed after the last election.

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 months of violence in the occupied West Bank, with near-daily raids and clashes.

However the conflict has had little direct impact on the campaign, which has 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.

Casting his ballot in Jerusalem, Netanyahu, after warning supporters about potentially high turnout for his opponents, said: “I told you I was a little bit worried but God willing...we will finish the day with a smile.”

As Netanyahu’s legal problems have continued, Ben-Gvir and fellow far-right leader Bezalel Smotrich have eaten into Likud’s traditional hawkish base and the once-marginal Religious Zionism is now set to be the third-largest party in parliament.

Ben-Gvir - a former member of Kach, a group on Israeli and US terrorist watchlists - has moderated some earlier positions, but the prospect of his joining a coalition government led by Netanyahu risks alarming Washington.

Casting his vote in the West Bank settlement of Kiryat Arba, where he lives, Ben-Gvir told reporters: “Here, with one ballot, hopefully Netanyahu will become prime minister, (and) a right-wing government will be formed.”

Lapid has campaigned on diplomatic advances with countries including Turkey and Lebanon as well as on a strong performance by the Israeli economy which has weathered the turbulent global environment in relatively good shape.

Flanked by supporters outside a polling center in Tel Aviv, Lapid said: “This election is between the future and the past so go vote today for the future of our children, for the future of our country.”

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