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Netanyahu poised for a comeback, with most votes counted in Israel

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Israel's former prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, seems poised to take power once again. Israel's votes are not all counted, and assembling a governing coalition is tricky, but Netanyahu's party received the most votes in this week's election, and he consolidated the right-wing vote with hard-right campaign promises. So let's talk this through with NPR's Daniel Estrin, who's in Tel Aviv. Hey there, Daniel.

DANIEL ESTRIN, BYLINE: Hi, Steve.

INSKEEP: How certain is Netanyahu's win?

ESTRIN: It does seem fairly certain. By this point, most votes have been counted, at least 85% of the votes. Netanyahu has the big advantage. His Likud party got most of the votes. His allies on the far right have come in third. And together it seems that they will pretty easily be able to form a coalition together with Orthodox Jewish parties. So here's what Netanyahu said to his supporters early today.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BENJAMIN NETANYAHU: (Speaking Hebrew).

ESTRIN: He was still being cautious, but he said, we are on the cusp of a very big victory. And it is looking good for him because parties opposing him are much more splintered than the parties that are in favor of him. Two parties on the left may not even make it into Parliament this time. We're talking about a secular Arab nationalist party, which probably didn't get enough votes. And it's unclear if Meretz, the left-wing pro-LGBTQ party, will even make it into Parliament this time. If both of those parties would have made it, we probably would have seen a stalemate.

INSKEEP: Wow. So Netanyahu was prime minister in the '90s, was then prime minister more recently for a decade, was then finally pushed out of office amid allegations of corruption and other things, could be back in power. How are Israelis responding?

ESTRIN: Well, there were celebrations at the campaign headquarters of the far right, calling for the next government to have tough law enforcement against Palestinians and Palestinian citizens of Israel. One Netanyahu voter told us today that he doesn't care who's prime minister; what's important to him is the Jewish character of the state. Now, on the other side of the map, Israelis who are - oppose Netanyahu are frankly beside themselves this morning. You see a lot of that on social media. We ran into Marik Shtern today. He's a political analyst but also a very unhappy voter.

MARIK SHTERN: The feeling is quite bad, actually. It's sort of despair. The country is going into a very clear direction of nationalism and religious extremism. But we will be OK. The problem would be with the Palestinian citizens of Israel, the Palestinians in the West Bank. All of them are in real danger for the near future.

ESTRIN: And, you know, he is right. We have spoken to worried Arab voters, especially worried about a far-right provocateur, Itamar Ben-Gvir, who is poised to be a cabinet minister in a likely Netanyahu government.

INSKEEP: Setting aside the personnel, is it really clear what a Netanyahu government would do?

ESTRIN: I think the biggest changes that we would likely see is mostly the weakening of the independence of the judiciary. Netanyahu is on trial for corruption. He wants to avoid going to jail. And his allies have made it very clear they're ready to make far-reaching changes to checks and balances in Israeli democracy.

INSKEEP: OK. Again, if you missed the top, Israel held another election. Benjamin Netanyahu's Likud party is in the lead, and he appears to be poised to form a governing majority, a governing coalition.

NPR's Daniel Estrin. Thanks so much.

ESTRIN: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Daniel Estrin is NPR's international correspondent in Jerusalem.