Netanyahu on brink of victory in Israel

Israel's former premier Benjamin Netanyahu is poised for a return to power, claiming a "huge vote of confidence" from voters and declaring his right-wing camp is on the cusp of a resounding election win.

With roughly 70 per cent of votes counted, Netanyahu's conservative Likud and its likely religious and far-right allies were on pace to control a majority in parliament after Israel's fifth election in less than four years.

"We are on the brink of a very big victory," a smiling Netanyahu told cheering supporters at his Likud party election headquarters on Wednesday, his voice hoarse from weeks of campaigning.

Netanyahu's alliance with far-right firebrand Itamar Ben-Gvir, whose Religious Zionism bloc is on course to become the third-largest party, has alarmed Palestinians and drawn concern among some allies, including the United States.

But Netanyahu, whose position appeared to have strengthened after early exit polls showed him with only a razor-thin majority, vowed to form a "stable, national government," as the crowd interrupted him singing "Bibi, king of Israel."

The former premier, who in 2020 forged formal diplomatic ties with the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, said a government under his leadership would act responsibly, avoid "unnecessary adventures" and "expand the circle of peace".

Though the landscape could shift as the ballot count trickles in, the partial tally showed Netanyahu, who is on trial on corruption charges he denies, leading a bloc of four parties taking 67 of the Knesset's 120 seats.

After a campaign dominated by worries over security and the cost of living, support for centrist Prime Minister Yair Lapid's ruling coalition appeared to have collapsed although Lapid stopped short of conceding victory and said he would wait until the final count.

Less than 18 months out of office, Netanyahu also said he would wait for official results.

The record 12-year consecutive reign of Israel's longest serving prime minister ended in June 2021 when Lapid joined estranged Netanyahu ally Naftali Bennett to stitch together an unlikely coalition of liberals, rightists and Arab parties.

But the fragile alliance unravelled a year into its rule.

Netanyahu's legal battles have fed the stalemate blocking Israel's political system since 2019 and deepened the split between his supporters and opponents. But he said Israelis were thirsty for change.

"The people want a different way. They want security," Netanyahu said. "They want power, not weakness ... they want diplomatic wisdom, but with firmness."

It remains unclear what position Ben-Gvir and fellow far-right leader Bezalel Smotrich may have in a Netanyahu-led government. But the strength of their ultra-nationalist Religious Zionism group was one of the outstanding features of the campaign as they brought it surging in from the political margins.

Ben-Gvir, who advocates expelling anyone deemed disloyal to Israel, is a former member of Kach, a group on Israeli and US terrorist watchlists, and was once convicted for racist incitement although he has moderated some of his more extreme positions.

His rise alongside Netanyahu has deepened Palestinian scepticism over prospects for a political solution after a campaign which unrolled during increasing violence in the occupied West Bank, with near-daily raids and clashes.