Netanyahu pushes comeback bid in tight Israeli election race

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Former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu holds a local campaign event in the run up to Israel's election

By James Mackenzie

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Israelis vote for the fifth time in four years on Tuesday in an election in which former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s comeback bid may depend on a far-right party whose leaders call for those deemed disloyal to Israel to be expelled.

Voter exasperation at the deadlock may hurt turnout but surging support for the ultranationalist Religious Zionism bloc and firebrand co-leader Itamar Ben-Gvir has galvanized the race.

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

Final opinion polls published last week however 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.

Security aned surging prices have topped the list of voter concerns in a campaign triggered by outgoing centrist Prime Minister Yair Lapid’s decision to seek an early election following defections from his ruling coalition.

However policy disputes 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.

After repeated rounds of elections in which he failed to gain a stable majority, he now depends on Religious Zionism, a once-marginal group set to be the third-largest party.

The rise of Ben-Gvir and fellow far-right leader Bezalel Smotrich has eaten into Likud’s traditional support which has long been loyal to Netanyahu’s hawkish image.

Ben-Gvir – a former member of Kach, a group on Israeli and U.S. terrorist watchlists, and whose record includes a 2007 conviction for racist incitment against Arabs – on Sunday announced he wanted to be police minister.

Netanyahu told Israel’s Army Radio he would “not rule out” such an appointment but although Ben-Gvir has moderated some earlier positions, the prospect of his joining the government risks alarming allies, including Washington.

Lapid, who will remain in office in the event of deadlock, has campaigned on the record of the unlikely coalition formed after the last election that mixed right-wing, centrist and, for the first time, an Arab party.

As well as strong economic growth, he points to diplomatic progress with Lebanon and Turkey and a relatively restrained round of fighting with Palestinian militants in Gaza.

(Reporting by James Mackenzie; Editing by Nick Macfie)