The Return of Netanyahu

Middle East

The Return of Netanyahu

Commentary
Posted on: 8th November 2022
By Multiple Authors
Beth Oppenheim
Policy Advisor (Middle East), Tony Blair Institute for Global Change
Ruti Winterstein
Head of Office (Israel), Tony Blair Institute for Global Change

Just 17 months after leaving office, Israel’s longest-serving prime minister is set to return. Benjamin Netanyahu has emerged as the victor from the 1 November election, delivering a comfortable overall majority of 64 seats (out of 120) for his right-wing, religious, ultra-nationalist coalition. The incumbent Prime Minister Yair Lapid secured 51 seats for his coalition bloc, with the five remaining seats going to Hadash-Ta’al (an alliance of a communist Arab-Jewish and a secular Arab party). Netanyahu will likely find himself heavily dependent on the far-right alliance between the Religious Zionism and Jewish Power parties (14 seats), headed by Bezalel Smotrich and Itamar Ben-Gvir. Half his emerging coalition will be drawn from religious, ultra-orthodox and far-right parties, making it the most right-wing government in Israel’s history.

After three-and-a-half years of unprecedented political instability and five general elections, it appears that Israel’s political deadlock has finally been broken. Israeli politics has been paralysed, split along the fissure of pro- or anti-Netanyahu, which upended the past orthodoxy of a right-religious bloc versus a centre-left bloc (with Arab-Israeli parties marginalised by both sides) and resulted in the emergence of unlikely alliances.

The deciding factor in Netanyahu’s win was the broad unity and discipline of the right-religious bloc versus the fragmentation and disunity of the opposing bloc. When Ben-Gvir threatened to split, Netanyahu ensured that the 2021 merger between three far-right parties was re-established. The absolute number of votes received by each bloc was very close (with a difference of just 30,000 votes between them, out of a total of 4.8 million votes cast), and Lapid’s centrist Yesh Atid increased in strength significantly from 17 to 24 seats. However, the fracturing of the anti-Netanyahu bloc into smaller parties, rather than running on joint tickets, resulted in left-wing Meretz and Arab-nationalist Balad just failing to pass the electoral threshold (3.25 per cent), bleeding votes for the bloc. Had they passed, the result would have been further deadlock.

The disintegration of the Arab-Israeli political alliance of parties was critical. The four main Arab political parties have run together on and off under the so-called Joint List since 2015, winning as many as 15 seats in 2020, but their diverse ideologies ultimately led to the List’s dissolution. Half the parties in the List left – the United Arab List, a conservative Islamic party, and later Balad – leaving behind an alliance of the communist Arab and Jewish Hadash, and secular Arab Ta’al (Hadash-Ta’al). That dissolution proved fatal, meaning Balad did not pass the threshold, winning only 2.9 per cent of the vote and wasting almost 140,000 votes or three-and-a-half seats.

Likewise, on the left, Meretz and Labor ran separately rather than on a joint list after Labor leader Merav Michaeli declined to merge, concerned that doing so could alienate the parties’ respective voter bases. In the end, the decision to run independently resulted in Meretz narrowly failing to pass the threshold, falling just 4,000 votes short of gaining representation, and squandering over 150,000 votes and almost four seats. Labor barely scraped past the threshold, gaining just four seats, down from seven. The two parties share similar policy platforms, supporting a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, social justice, and the separation of religion and state. The Israeli left will need to develop a more compelling, coherent strategy out of the ashes of this election, including a reckoning with its failure to work together with Arab-Israeli parties.

One of the most significant outcomes of the election is the rise of the far-right Religious Zionism-Jewish Power alliance. The alliance achieved the highest number of votes for the far right in any Israeli election, winning 10.8 per cent of the vote and making it the third-largest party with 14 seats. However, these dynamics are not new; Israeli society has gradually shifted rightwards due to a growing religious population, as well as in response to the unstable security situation resulting from the unresolved conflict with the Palestinians.

The rise of the extreme right was in significant part due to the electoral appeal of Ben-Gvir, many of whose supporters are young and voting for the first time. Ben-Gvir is the ideological disciple of Meir Kahane, the ultra-nationalist rabbi whose party, Kach, was banned from running in Israeli elections for incitement to racism and was designated a terror organisation by the United States. Ben-Gvir himself has been convicted of incitement to racism and was infamous for displaying a framed photograph in his living room of Baruch Goldstein – an American-Jewish extremist who killed 29 Muslim worshippers in Hebron in 1994. Upon entering the Knesset in 2021, Ben-Gvir distanced himself somewhat from Kahane’s ideology and removed the photograph from his house.

Just over two years ago, Ben-Gvir was shunned by mainstream politics, winning only 0.4 per cent of the vote in the March 2020 election. Despite ensuring that no photo of the two ever emerged during the campaign, Netanyahu has been accused by opponents of playing a key role in mainstreaming Ben-Gvir, as did the media, providing him with incessant exposure.

The appeal of Ben-Gvir and Smotrich stems from their ability to capitalise on security incidents, stoking public fear and animosity towards Palestinians and Arab Israelis, and utilising this to bolster ultra-nationalist sentiment. While some in the security establishment view them as a liability, their supporters welcome their bellicose rhetoric and behaviour. Ben-Gvir is notorious for provocative acts during periods of friction, including brandishing his gun in public during clashes between Jews and Arabs.

Given the size of the far-right Religious Zionism-Jewish Power alliance (14 seats) and its likely influence within the prospective coalition government, Netanyahu, who has traditionally opted for a more broad-based, moderate coalition encompassing centrist elements, will have to balance the wants of his coalition partners with his relationships in the international arena. The prospective inclusion of the far-right in Israel’s next coalition has caused consternation among some Jewish groups and will be a challenge for Israel’s relations with its allies, first and foremost the United States. Netanyahu will seek to assuage the concerns of Israel’s allies in the West and across the region, and has already sent out conciliatory messages to regional allies. His election-night speech was conciliatory in tone, indicating a retreat from his campaign rhetoric, as he promised to “govern on behalf of all Israelis”.

Speculation that centrists from Lapid’s bloc might join the coalition as a means of diluting the right-wing influence was quickly quashed when defence minister Gantz announced that his National Unity party would work from the opposition rather than join the coalition.

With the election results now final, President Isaac Herzog will consult with all parties to decide which leader should receive the mandate to form a government. Given the outright majority for the Netanyahu-led bloc, the Likud leader is expected to receive this mandate, and will then have 28 days (plus a 14-day extension if required) to form a government of at least 61 members of the Knesset (MKs). Coalition-formation negotiations have already begun to determine the distribution of ministerial portfolios and budgets between the different coalition parties. Ben-Gvir has set his sights on the highly sensitive position of Minister of Public Security, which oversees public security and law enforcement; Smotrich, as party leader, will also vie for a senior portfolio. Netanyahu will need to strike a compromise between these demands and those of his own Likud MKs, but he will likely seek to maintain overall control of Israel’s foreign and security policies as he has done in previous coalition governments, including strengthening Israel’s ties with its regional allies, despite the new contours of his government.

Figure 1 – 1 November Israeli election results

Source: TBI

 

 

Lead Image: Getty Images

 

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