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Bibi’s Back In Israel: Is There Going To Be Trouble? – Analysis

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By Joshua Krasna*

(FPRI) — Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu is back. The Likud Party head has been prime minister of Israel almost continuously since March 2009. This streak was broken in June 2021 by an unlikely coalition of eight parties, united solely by their wish to see him gone. However, underlying currents of Israeli society and politics have reasserted themselves, and he will form his new (sixth) government in the coming weeks.

Background

The outgoing government, under Naftali Bennet and then Yair Lapid, assumed office amid widespread disaffection with Netanyahu. The latter was indicted in November 2019 for bribery, fraud, and breach of trust; his trial, which his supporters claim is politically motivated, began on May 24, 2020, and is still ongoing. He did not step down.

The current political crisis started in November 2018, when Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman pulled his right-wing Yisrael Beteinu party out of the coalition. The ensuing elections, in April 2019, September 2019, March 2020, March 2021, and November 2022, were not divided along conventional ideological lines, but between the “pro-Netanyahu” and “anti-Netanyahu” camps. In the first two elections, neither camp was able to gain a majority in the 120-seat Knesset, and new elections ensued. In March 2020,the ostensible head of the anti-Netanyahu camp, former IDF Chief of Staff and “Blue-White” party leader Benny Gantz, broke with his party partner Lapid, and joined Netanyahu’s government coalition as defense minister. Within a year, that government collapsed, when Netanyahu broke his coalition agreement with Gantz.

In 2021, three events broke the deadlock and enabled the construction of an anti-Netanyahu government. Bennett, the head of the Yamina (“Rightward”) party with seven seats, joined the anti-Netanyahu coalition. In return, he became prime minister; the post was to rotate to Lapid—whose Yesh Atid party was the largest in the coalition—after eighteen months or when new elections were called. In addition, several Likud members, led by former Interior Minister Gidon Saar, formed their own party, New Hope, which received six Knesset seats; this party joined the coalition as well. Lastly, Mansour Abbas’ United Arab List, a conservative Islamist party with six seats, joined the coalition. This was the first time an Arab party had joined an Israeli government coalition. It was enabled by the fact that Netanyahu had previously offered Abbas to join a government led by him (a step condemned by his right-wing partners).

These developments allowed Lapid and Bennett to put together a sixty-two-seat coalition, which was shaky from the start. The most significant of many tensions which brought down the “Change Government” was the fact that many of Yamina’s voters and members of Knesset (MKs) opposed Bennett’s joining what was deemed a Left-leaning government, especially one that included an Arab party. Several of Yamina’s MKs, courted heavily by Netanyahu (two enter the new Knesset on Likud’s list), left the coalition, erasing its thin majority and triggering new elections.

What Happened Last Week and Why?

To understand last week’s results, a brief digression on the electoral threshold is necessary. Israel has a system of national proportional representation: there are no parliamentary districts, the voter votes for a national party list, and each party receives a number of seats according to its percentage of total valid votes. In the past, there was a proliferation of small parties, perceived as having undue influence in politics, since one or two seats were often the balance between the Right and Left blocs, and the heads of small parties could thus “name their own price”. The “electoral threshold”—the minimum percentage of the total valid votes a national list needs to receive to enter the Knesset—was therefore raised gradually from 1 percent before 1992 to 3.25 percent% in 2014: This means that a party today needs at least four seats to enter the Knesset. The idea was to force small, ideologically similar parties to unite, and thus create a system with fewer but larger parties. This led to the creation since 2014 of a “big-tent” compound party to the right of Likud, and another in the Arab sector.

However, the leaders of the factions forced into larger parties by the electoral threshold limits have chafed at being yoked into what they saw as unnatural, technical alliances with political and personal rivals. The Right has been better at maintaining the cohesiveness of its components. In the most recent elections, it comprised four parties: (1) Likud; (2) Religious Zionism, which is a Netanyahu-midwifed amalgam of the Religious Zionism party of Bezalel Smotrich, the far-right Otzma Yehudit (“Jewish Power”) party under Itamar ben Gvir, and the “family-values,” anti-feminist and anti-LGBT Noam party; (3) the Shas party, supported by ultra-Orthodox (Haredi) and traditionalist Mizrahi Jews, which positions itself as representing the working class; and (4) the Haredi Torah Flag party. This compactness assured none of the Right and Haredi votes would “be wasted” on parties that did not pass the electoral threshold (votes for parties that do not pass the threshold are discarded, and not counted in the total used to compute the number of seats in Knesset).

Israel’s two left-wing parties, the Labor party and   (“Vigor”, an anagram of the names of its precursor parties), had discussed banding together for electoral purposes for some time. This year, Meretz suggested to Labor’s Merav Michaeli a technical merger to ensure that both parties would enter the Knesset. Michaeli, despite strong pressure within her own party, declined. Meretz fell short of the threshold, by 4000 votes. In the Arab sector, three ideologically disparate parties amalgamated in 2015 into the Joint List, to ensure passing the threshold, and achieved their highest representation ever—fifteen seats. However, this party was riven by ideological and personal rivalries, and for the 2021 elections, split in two, with Abbas’ party joining the coalition and the others in opposition. This year, the rump Joint List split again, with one party passing the threshold, and the other—Balad—falling short. Over 6 percent of the vote, comprising 289,000 votes for the anti-Netanyahu camp, were therefore discounted.

The two “camps” received broadly similar numbers of votes. But on the right, four parties split half the vote, while on the left, eight parties did so, with two not passing the threshold. So while broader ideological and social issues will be discussed below, the results are to a very large part about arithmetic. While public criticism of Michaeli is scathing, Meretz and Balad’s passing the threshold would probably not have reversed the results, but rather reflected continued stalemate and led to another election.

However, in any case, the game was Netanyahu’s to lose, due to the twenty-year built-in right/Haredi majority in Israeli politics (see table 1). Support for Likud, which Netanyahu has shaped in his image by seeing off potential leadership rivals, has kept fairly steady for the past 10+ years. But he has also been able to forge a potent composite, conservative identity from nationalists and the religious. This is based not only on agreement regarding security issues, but also on identity politics, especially anti-elitism (somewhat incongruous for Netanyahu, an MIT graduate in government since 1982), national pride, belief in traditional, particularist values, and hostility towards universal, “progressive” ones (often mocked as “the State of Tel Aviv”). The right/Haredi alliance is also opposed to what is perceived as over-legalism and judicial activism, and is suspicious of the “deep state,” especially regarding the public prosecutor’s office and the police. The previously ideologically neutral Haredi parties and more importantly, their voters, have shifted firmly into the right-wing camp. The new generation of Haredim are proudly Israeli and nationalistic, unlike their forebearers, who viewed the State with disdain. Within this broader camp, Netanyahu has in recent years nurtured a sizeable and vocal group of activists who have unremitting loyalty to him personally, known as the “Bibistim” (“Bibi-ists”).

Table 1: Distribution of Knesset seats in the past two decades

*The 2006 elections were won by, and the coalition formed by, the Kadima party, which was created in 2005 by politicians from both Likud and Labor. It failed to replicate that success in 2009, and dissipated as a major force in Israeli politics.

The phenomenon of ideologically right-wing parties (first Yisrael Beteinu, then Yamina and New Hope) joining the anti-Netanyahu coalition in 2019–2021 was personal, not ideological. Their voters are not natural allies with the center and left parties, much less the Arab ones. Without Netanyahu at the helm of the right/Haredi bloc in these years, it would most probably have continued with a commanding lead. Bennet’s joining the opposition coalition in 2021 gave it its majority. But Yamina imploded, and its voters, most of whom didn’t support joining the anti-Netanyahu coalition in the first place, seem to have moved to the ideologically adjacent Religious Zionism or Likud. There were thirteen seats for parties to the right of Likud (Yamina and Religious Zionism) in 2021, and fourteen in 2022. So there is no sea change reflected in the election results: The conservative majority has reasserted itself with the disappearance of the Bennett wobble (he is leaving politics).

The ultra-nationalist Ben-Gvir seems to have attracted non-religious and many young voters to his party. This shows a wider trend: the nationalist and religious right’s outrage over Lapid’s bringing an Arab party into the governmental coalition (despite the fact that Netanyahu was first to raise the idea). The concept—always latent in Israeli politics—of a “Jewish majority,” that a government depending on Arab votes in the Knesset is not legitimate, has taken a center place in current political discourse (fanned by Netanyahu’s rhetoric while in opposition). This was bolstered by concerns regarding personal security, perceived loss of government control and lawlessness (mostly attributed to Arabs) in the geographical periphery, and the loyalty of Arab citizens; these were much inflamed by the inter-religious conflict in mixed cities in May 2021.

What Now?

President Isaac Herzog has invited the heads of the parties in the newly-elected Knesset to recommend their candidate for prime minister. The candidate with the most recommendations has twenty-eight days to attempt to form a government; Herzog can give him another fourteen days if necessary. If that time does not suffice, Herzog can ask any other MK to try to form a government. If that is not successful, new elections will be scheduled.

Netanyahu should not have a problem forming a government. The question is which government he would prefer to form, and what will be the demands of each potential coalition partner. The other key question is how he uses the political situation to promote what may be his main goal: ending his legal problems.

What raises the most concern both in Israel and abroad is the fact that the prospective, “natural” four-party coalition will be the most right-wing in Israeli history. The second largest party in the coalition is Religious Zionism, which includes two factions that are far-right. Over one-half of coalition MKs will be orthodox or Haredi (sectors which make up 25–30 percent of the Jewish population, and 20–22 percent of the population as a whole). Netanyahu would be one of the most moderate figures in his own coalition and government. Some Israeli progressives are discussing emigration, and bewailing how they “lost the country;” post-mortems, introspection, and backbiting are well underway on the center and left.

Some parts of the shared agenda of the prospective coalition are clear: a more permissive attitude towards the use of force by military and police; weakening of judicial power, review, and “activism” by passing the “override clause,” allowing a Knesset majority to overrule Supreme Court rulings; changes to the process of appointing judges to ensure a more conservative judiciary; expansion and protection of the West Bank settlement enterprise; and weakening of legal advisors, regulators, and the civil service. Efforts begun under the outgoing government related to the religious status quo, such as permitting public transportation on the Sabbath, reform of government kashruth supervision, and embracing of non-Orthodox Jewish movements, will be abandoned.

The support among all coalition members for other suggested initiatives is less clear. These include legislation aimed directly at ending Netanyahu’s legal woes (the so-called French Law, which would forbid trying a sitting prime minister), closing businesses open on Sabbath, or reversing all Lieberman’s economic reforms, though steps particularly despised by the Haredim—such as canceling some subsidies to yeshiva students and taxing disposable tableware and sweetened drinks -will be on the block.

Likud may have problems with demands from its coalition partners for policies more controversial among the public, especially regarding women’s and LGBT rights. Elements within Religious Zionism and the Haredi parties have called for restricting the scope of tasks open to women in the military; re-legalization of conversion therapy; suspension of government funding for gender transition drugs; and preventing adoption and donation of blood by gay people (one of Netanyahu’s key lieutenants in Likud, Amir Ohana, is a gay parent). Another sensitive area is immigration: some of the coalition partners wish to narrow the right of those with one Jewish grandparent to emigrate to Israel, claiming that this dilutes the Jewish population of the state.

A key area of concern regards Israeli Arabs. The new coalition will push for even harsher policies to suppress rampant violent crime in the Arab sector and stiffer penalties for rioting and unrest. It may also take steps to limit or even outlaw elements of Arab political expression; the Balad party is in its sights. This would not only please their base, but also serve to depress Arab turnout in future elections, and thus cement the coalition’s political preeminence. In any case, the small steps taken in the past year to encourage greater inclusion of Arab Israelis in society and politics, symbolized by Abbas’ joining the coalition, seem destined to die away.

On the other hand, Netanyahu is, despite his image in the West, a conservative, not a radical. He has always been careful to bring centrist partners into his ruling coalitions, to prevent him from falling hostage to the extreme wing of his supporters. Some observers and supporters of components of the previous government (perhaps as an exercise in wishful thinking) see that as a possibility now, and are agitating for a national unity government instead of a narrow right-Haredi coalition, perhaps linked to ending Netanyahu’s trial. This seems, however, improbable, since Netanyahu’s other natural coalition partners, and many of his own voters, giddy with success, will object vehemently. The parties of the previous coalition also seem unlikely to agree to sit with Netanyahu, though the splitting off of MKs willing to do so “for the good of the country”, would not be terribly surprising.

Be that as it may, tensions in the coalition negotiations can be expected, since Netanyahu will probably not give all the partners the portfolios they want, where they could cause him political damage. Smotrich has requested the Defense or Justice Ministry, Ben Gvir has publicly demanded the Internal Security Ministry, responsible for the police, and Shas’ leader, Arye Deri, who has twice been found guilty of fraud and corruption, has expressed his desire for the Finance Ministry.

Regarding foreign policy, these are still early days. The Biden administration has been cautious thus far in its responses, though it was reported to have expressed concern about extremist elements in the coalition, and the possibility that it would avoid engaging with certain ministers (a reference to Ben Gvir). Much will also depend on the perception of Netanyahu’s attitude towards Russia and Ukraine; he is suspect due to his good relations in the past with Vladmir Putin, and his weak response to the February invasion. The election results will certainly energize the anti-Zionist elements of the Democratic Party, and the delegitimization of Israel in progressive circles. On the other hand, his re-election has been met with joy by leaders of “non-liberal democratic” states (such as Hungary, Italy, and India) and movements, and the Republican Party.

On the regional level, Netanyahu was involved in the Abraham Accords, and it is unlikely that his return to the premiership will disrupt the relations with United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, or Morocco; the profile of relations and the pace of people-to-people and non-political ties may however dip. It also should not adversely affect improving relations with Saudi Arabia which in any case, for its own reasons, is not expected to formalize relations with Israel soon. Relations with Egypt, based on shared security and energy interests, will continue to be good, as they were under Netanyahu in the past. However, the fraught relationship with Erdogan’s Turkey, much improved in the past year, may throttle down due to bad blood between the two leaders. Relations with Jordan, which reached a nadir under Netanyahu despite the strategic significance of Israeli gas and water to Jordan’s domestic economy, are sure to be affected adversely. This is due to the fact that issues central to both the Israeli right and the Hashemites, such as Jewish access and Israeli sovereignty on the Temple Mount and the situation in the territories more generally, may quickly be shoved to the forefront (it has been reported that Netanyahu assured the Jordanian leadership discreetly that he will not allow any change in the status quo on the Mount).

The future of the maritime border deal with Lebanon, signed only days before the election by both sides with the U.S., is unclear. Netanyahu and his allies denounced the deal as a surrender of sovereign territory and of potential national wealth, and as rewarding Hizballah for aggressive posturing. Netanyahu pledged before the election to treat it “as I did the Oslo Accords,” emphasizing that during his period of rule, the Accords “were not canceled, they were neutralized.” To avoid direct conflict with the United States, he will probably “slow-roll” the implementation of the deal, especially the agreement with the French company Total of the division of possible revenues from the exploitation of gas along the maritime border.


The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a non-partisan organization that seeks to publish well-argued, policy-oriented articles on American foreign policy and national security priorities. 

*About the author: Joshua Krasna, a Senior Fellow in the Foreign Policy Research Institute’s Program on the Middle East, is an analyst specializing in Middle East political and regional developments and forecasting, as well as in international strategic issues.

Source: This article was published by FPRI

Published by the Foreign Policy Research Institute

Founded in 1955, FPRI (http://www.fpri.org/) is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization devoted to bringing the insights of scholarship to bear on the development of policies that advance U.S. national interests and seeks to add perspective to events by fitting them into the larger historical and cultural context of international politics.

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