JERUSALEM (AP) — Former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Thursday appeared set to return to power as head of Israel's most right-wing government ever after winning this week's national election, with the current caretaker prime minister conceding defeat.
Final results showed Netanyahu's Likud Party and its ultranationalist and religious partners capturing a solid majority in Israel's Knesset, or parliament.
The strong showing promised to end the political gridlock that has paralyzed Israel for the past three and a half years. But the planned agenda of the new government expected to take office — including an overhaul of the country's legal system and a tough line against the Palestinians — promises to further polarize a deeply divided nation and risks antagonizing Israel's closest allies abroad.
Israel on Tuesday held its fifth election since 2019 in a race, like the previous four, that was widely seen as a referendum on Netanyahu's fitness to rule as he faces corruption charges. While the previous races ended in deadlock, Netanyahu managed a disciplined campaign that gave him the edge over a divided and disorganized opposition.
The acting prime minister, Yair Lapid, conceded defeat and called Netanyahu to congratulate him shortly before the final results were released. Lapid said he had instructed his staff to prepare an organized transition of power.
"The state of Israel comes before any political consideration," Lapid said. "I wish Netanyahu success, for the sake of the people of Israel and the state of Israel."
There was no immediate comment from Netanyahu.
According to the unofficial final results, Netanyahu and his ultranationalist and ultra-Orthodox allies captured 64 seats in Israel's 120-seat Knesset. His opponents in the outgoing coalition, led by Lapid, won 51 seats, with the remainder held by a small unaffiliated Arab faction. Netanyahu still has to conduct negotiations with his partners, but is expected to form a coalition in the coming weeks.
The election focused heavily on the values that are meant to define the state: Jewish or democratic. In the end, voters favored their Jewish identity.
Netanyahu's main governing partner is expected to be Religious Zionism, a far-right party whose main candidate, Itamar Ben-Gvir has built a career on confrontations with Palestinians and espouses anti-Arab views that were once largely confined to an extremist fringe.
The party will be the third-largest in parliament.
Ben-Gvir says he wants to end Palestinian autonomy in parts of the occupied West Bank and maintain Israel's occupation over the Palestinians, now in its 56th year, indefinitely. Until recently, he hung a photo in his home of a Jewish militant who murdered 29 Palestinian worshippers in a 1994 mosque shooting in the West Bank.
Ben-Gvir has labeled Arab lawmakers "terrorists" and called for their deportation. The far-right lawmaker, who recently brandished a pistol while visiting a tense Palestinian neighborhood in east Jerusalem, wants to be put in charge of the country's police force.
The party's leader, Bezalel Smotrich, a fellow West Bank settler who has made anti-Arab remarks, has his sights set on the Defense Ministry. That would make him the overseer of the military and Israel's West Bank military occupation.
Party officials favor aggressive settlement construction in the West Bank. They also have made repeated anti-LGBTQ comments.
These positions have threatened to antagonize American Jews, who are overwhelmingly liberal, and put Israel's next government on a collision course with the Biden administration.
The White House on Thursday said it was looking forward to working with Israel on "our shared histories and values."
But in a separate comment, State Department spokesman Ned Price said the U.S. hopes Israel "will continue to share the values of an open, democratic society, including tolerance and respect for all in civil society, particularly for minority groups." He also reiterated support for a two-state solution between Israel and the Palestinians – an idea with little, if any, support among the incoming government.
Italy's new far-right premier, Giorgia Meloni, congratulated Netanyahu on Twitter. "Ready to strengthen our friendship and our bilateral relations, to better face our common challenges," she wrote.
Hungary's nationalist prime minister, Viktor Orban, also congratulated Netanyahu, calling him "a friend of Hungary."
As the votes were being counted, Israeli-Palestinian violence was flaring, with at least four Palestinians killed in separate incidents, and an Israeli police officer wounded lightly in a stabbing in Jerusalem's Old City.
Ben-Gvir used the incidents to promise a tougher approach to Palestinian attackers once he enters government.
"The time has come to restore security to the streets," he tweeted. "The time has come for a terrorist who goes out to carry out an attack to be taken out!"
While Religious Zionism could cause Netanyahu headaches abroad, it could bring him relief at home.
The party has promised to enact changes to Israeli law that could halt Netanyahu's corruption trial and make the charges disappear. Along with other nationalist allies, they also want to weaken the independence of the judiciary and concentrate more power in the hands of lawmakers. Netanyahu says the trial is a witch hunt against him orchestrated by a hostile media and a biased judicial system.
Netanyahu remains a deeply polarizing figure in Israel. If his coalition takes power and pushes forward with its war on the justice system, these divisions are likely to deepen.
Netanyahu, Israel's longest-serving leader, was ousted in 2021 after 12 consecutive years in power by an ideologically-diverse coalition. The coalition collapsed in the spring over infighting.
The strong showing by Likud and its allies reflected a decades-long shift to the right by the Israeli electorate.
Both Likud and Religious Zionism tapped into fears over Palestinian violence in the West Bank, accused Lapid of being weak and demonized his government for being the first to include an Arab party in a coalition.
Israel's dovish left wing, meanwhile, had an abysmal showing in the election. The Labor party, which was a dominant force in Israeli politics for decades and supports Palestinian statehood, squeaked into parliament with the minimum four seats. The anti-occupation Meretz was banished into political exile for the first time since it was founded three decades ago.
"This is a disaster for Meretz, a disaster for the country and yes, a disaster for me," Meretz's distraught leader, Zehava Galon, said in a video.