Dispatch

The view from the ground.

Far-Right Party Will Push Anti-Arab Agenda in New Israeli Government

With most votes counted, Benjamin Netanyahu and ultranationalists look like big winners.

By , a journalist covering Middle East politics.
Israeli far-right lawmaker Itamar Ben-Gvir speaks during a rally with supporters in the southern Israeli city of Sderot on Oct 26.
Israeli far-right lawmaker Itamar Ben-Gvir speaks during a rally with supporters in the southern Israeli city of Sderot on Oct 26.
Israeli far-right lawmaker Itamar Ben-Gvir speaks during a rally with supporters in the southern Israeli city of Sderot on Oct 26. GIL COHEN-MAGEN/AFP VIA GETTY IMAGES

JERUSALEM—Israeli opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu is set for a stunning return to power just over a year after being toppled as prime minister at the head of what is likely to be a far-right governing coalition—possibly the most extreme in the country’s history.

With nearly 90 percent of votes counted after the Tuesday election—the country’s fifth in less than four years—Netanyahu’s Likud party and its Jewish ultra-Orthodox and ultranationalist allies held a commanding lead over a combination of centrist, leftist, and Arab factions.

Although final results are not expected until later in the week, analysts are already hotly debating the variables that led to Netanyahu’s victory, including his success at turning out the traditional Likud voter base; the relative cohesion of the pro-Netanyahu alliance, which coalesced into just four parties; and the fractiousness of the anti-Netanyahu bloc, which ran no fewer than eight parties.

JERUSALEM—Israeli opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu is set for a stunning return to power just over a year after being toppled as prime minister at the head of what is likely to be a far-right governing coalition—possibly the most extreme in the country’s history.

With nearly 90 percent of votes counted after the Tuesday election—the country’s fifth in less than four years—Netanyahu’s Likud party and its Jewish ultra-Orthodox and ultranationalist allies held a commanding lead over a combination of centrist, leftist, and Arab factions.

Although final results are not expected until later in the week, analysts are already hotly debating the variables that led to Netanyahu’s victory, including his success at turning out the traditional Likud voter base; the relative cohesion of the pro-Netanyahu alliance, which coalesced into just four parties; and the fractiousness of the anti-Netanyahu bloc, which ran no fewer than eight parties.

Two of those parties—the Palestinian nationalist Balad and the left-wing Meretz—failed to make it over the 3.25 percent electoral threshold for entry into parliament, according to early results, thereby ensuring Netanyahu’s victory. “It’s stupidity. The difference [between the two camps] is 3,700 votes. The [anti-Netanyahu] Change Coalition lost because it didn’t unite,” Camil Fuchs, a leading Israeli pollster, told Haaretz on Wednesday. (That figure rose to a still modest 8,000 votes later in the day.)

Netanyahu’s clearest and possibly sole path to forming a government will be with what he has termed his “natural partners,” including the extremist Religious Zionism bloc, which surged to become the third-largest party in parliament.

Religious Zionism is an alliance of three far-right factions, representing hard-line settlers, ultranationalists, and anti-LGBTQ religious activists. Its most prominent leader, Itamar Ben-Gvir, is a disciple of the anti-Arab ideologue Meir Kahane. In the past, Ben-Gvir has been convicted of incitement to racism. For years, he proudly displayed a photo on his living room wall of a notorious Jewish terrorist responsible for the 1994 massacre of 29 Palestinians in the West Bank.

Netanyahu’s coalition, which would also include two ultra-Orthodox parties, is likely to have just 10 women parliamentarians (compared to 30 in the last coalition) and possibly only one woman cabinet minister after near parity between the genders in the outgoing government.

Israeli policies could change dramatically if even a fraction of the promises made on the campaign trail by right-wing politicians are enacted, analysts said. That includes a remaking of the country’s judiciary and rule of law as well as a more aggressive military posture toward Palestinians in the West Bank. Even Israel’s relationship with the United Stated could be affected.

Indeed, no issue has consumed the Israeli right in recent months more than an ambitious agenda of “legal reforms,” as politicians have called them. They include steps that would undermine the independence of the Supreme Court and attorney general, making both more beholden to the government.

Much of the ire directed at these institutions stems from Netanyahu’s own ongoing trial for fraud, breach of trust, and bribery, which he has called a “witch hunt” directed by a “vast left-wing, deep-state conspiracy” in the past. Ultranationalists have also long clamored for a freer hand on issues—such as West Bank settlement construction, the deportation of African migrants, and the limiting of minority rights—without the meddling of the courts and justice officials. Not coincidentally, such “reforms” could also halt Netanyahu’s trial altogether, according to legal analysts.

“This may be a tipping point in terms of taking a hatchet to Israel’s democratic system,” said Dahlia Scheindlin, a political strategist and fellow at the Century Foundation think tank. “It’s an almost proto-totalitarian insistence that the judiciary is the enemy of the people, and that in the name of ‘effective governance,’ these checks and balances must be removed.”

Scheindlin said these policy proposals go hand in hand with the “Jewish supremacism” advocated by Ben-Gvir and others, especially as it relates to Palestinians in both the West Bank and inside Israel. (Arab Israelis make up a fifth of the country’s citizenry.) Netanyahu repeatedly tarred the outgoing government, which for the first time in Israeli history included an Arab-Israeli party in its coalition, as being beholden to “terrorist supporters” and “Muslim Brothers.”

Ben-Gvir’s growing popularity can be partly explained as a backlash to the inclusion of an Arab party in the outgoing coalition. His rhetoric often focuses on the alleged security threat posed by Arab Israelis, but it can also be more transparently chauvinistic. “It’s time that we returned to being the masters of the house over our own country,” Ben-Gvir thundered in his victory speech to supporters early Wednesday morning.

According to Amos Harel, a veteran military analyst for Haaretz, the “racist message the right promoted and that brought it to power … will backfire and may spill out into the streets—especially now that Ben-Gvir [and Religious Zionism] are part of the government.”

But Harel and other analysts do expect some continuity in security policy from Netanyahu.

“It won’t be 180 degrees different … and Netanyahu has in the past shown himself to be extremely careful regarding the use of force,” Harel said.

Netanyahu’s ultranationalist partners could, he stressed, radicalize Israeli policy with respect to sensitive holy sites in Jerusalem, the ongoing 8-month-old escalation of violence in the West Bank, and even the “war-fighting ethics” of the Israeli military.

Ben-Gvir campaigned on a promise to loosen the rules governing the use of live fire against Palestinians in the West Bank. “It’s time to untie the hands of our soldiers and police officers,” he said on Wednesday. He would also likely push for eliminating the few limits on settlement construction in the West Bank that the outgoing Israeli government agreed to in talks with the Biden administration. Ben-Gvir and most other members of his party are themselves residents of various West Bank settlements.

Leaders around the world have yet to weigh in on the political developments in Israel, preferring to wait for the final election results and the composition of a new government. It remains to be seen whether any lurch rightward could affect Israel’s international standing, including in the United States.

Ahead of the election, at least two prominent U.S. Democratic Congress members known to be allies of Israel expressed their concern at the possibility of a government that would include Ben-Gvir. Several Jewish American groups did so as well.

Thomas Nides, the U.S. ambassador to Israel, tweeted on Wednesday that he looked forward to “continuing to work with the Israeli government on our shared interests and values.” The same message was conveyed last week—ahead of the Israeli election, and at least publicly—by U.S. President Joe Biden when Israeli President Isaac Herzog visited Washington.

Israel’s growing ties with several Arab states could remain unaffected. As a senior Bahraini minister told Israel’s Army Radio on the eve of the election, when asked about the possibility of a far-right Israeli government: “We keep our eyes set on the bigger picture. It took us 70-plus years to get to where we are today. I dont think a change [in government] will detract us from what weve invested in the last two to three years.”

But Scheindlin argues that if Israel under the new Netanyahu government goes down the road of other populist-nationalist states—like Hungary, Poland, Turkey, and India—then Western governments may begin treating it differently, at least rhetorically.

“It used to be taken for granted that Israel was part of the family of Western liberal democracies, with small failings regarding the occupation” of the Palestinian territories, she said. “Now, things may become clearer.”

Neri Zilber is a journalist covering Middle East politics and an adjunct fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. He is the co-author of State with No Army, Army with No State: Evolution of the Palestinian Authority Security Forces, 1994-2018. Twitter: @NeriZilber

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