TEL AVIV — Partnering with the far-right, conservative Benjamin Netanyahu appears poised to return to power as Israel's prime minister, with most votes now counted in the country's close race.
It's a blow to Israel's anti-Netanyahu bloc of parties, led by centrist Prime Minister Yair Lapid, which unseated Netanyahu last year after he spent more than a decade in power and currently faces trial for alleged corruption.
"We are on the cusp of a very big victory," Netanyahu — known by his nickname Bibi — told supporters after exit polls were released. They cheered, "Bibi, King of Israel."
His right-wing Likud Party is the clear frontrunner. His main ally, the far-right Religious Zionism party, made historic gains in Tuesday's vote, becoming the country's third-largest party. Together with Orthodox Jewish parties, they will likely be able to form a stable right-wing governing majority in parliament.
Netanyahu's victory is likely because two small left-wing parties may not have received enough votes to enter parliament: the nationalist Arab party Balad and the liberal pro-LGBTQ party Meretz. If those two parties would have gotten enough votes, the race could have resulted in a stalemate and a repeat election.
Vote counting may be complete later Wednesday or Thursday. Next week, Netanyahu would likely be appointed to try to form a government.
Netanyahu consolidated the right-wing vote by campaigning against the ruling coalition that deposed him, which included an Arab political party for the first time in Israel's history. He called to return "national pride" in a Jewish state and impose tougher law enforcement against Palestinians and Palestinian citizens of Israel.
"My hopes were that the Jewish people would win and Judaism would win, and we won in the end," says Netanyahu voter Haim Asher. "It doesn't matter that much who is the prime minister. We want a Jewish identity in the country."
After exit polls were published, far-right leaders danced with supporters at campaign headquarters. "Death to terrorists," activists chanted during a speech by Itamar Ben-Gvir, a far-right politician hostile to Palestinians. Netanyahu has promised to appoint him as a Cabinet minister.
For Palestinians, the election has proved to be a grave disappointment.
"I woke up into a nightmare. It's such a hard morning to us all," said Asmaa Alkadi, 32, a Palestinian Arab citizen of Israel and activist with a group promoting Arab-Jewish equality. After her get-out-the-vote effort in Arab communities, she says she is considering quitting the group, disillusioned by the election results.
"All the time was holding hope, and I was really believing that I can do my job, I can make our life better, I can collect people, I can bring people together," Alkadi says. "But I am sorry to tell you that I feel disconnected to the reality, and Israel's going to a sad, dark, bad place."
A Netanyahu-led, hard-right government is poised to introduce major changes to the checks and balances of the judiciary, which could help Netanyahu avoid imprisonment in his corruption trial, says Yohanan Plesner, director of the nonpartisan Israel Democracy Institute.
"It's a government that's expected to have an unprecedented agenda that will, if implemented, contribute to an erosion of Israeli democracy," Plesner says.
Anti-Netanyahu voters have posted gloomy memes on social media.
"It's sort of despair," says Marik Shtern, a political analyst and unhappy voter. "The country is going into a very clear direction of nationalism and religious extremism ... but we will be OK. The problem will be with the Palestinian citizens of Israel, the Palestinians in the West Bank. All of them are in a near danger for the near future."
Unlike Palestinian citizens living in Israel, Palestinians in the Israeli-occupied West Bank and Gaza do not have voting rights in Israel.
In a statement, Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Mohammed Shtayyeh said his people would suffer from Israeli policies no matter who won elections.
"The difference between the Israeli parties," he said, "is the same as the difference between Pepsi-Cola and Coca-Cola."