A right-wing, religious parties coalition led by former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu emerged as the winner in the Israeli elections held on November 1, the fifth such election in four years, controlling 64 seats in the 120, member Knesset (the Israeli Parliament).
The coalition government to be formed a few weeks after Netanyahu is expected to be given the mandate by Israeli President Isaac Herzog to form a government, will comprise ultra-religious forces in the country that could exacerbate Israel’s problems in many areas.
Netanyahu’s Likud party now has 32 Members in the Knesset (MK), outgoing Prime Minister Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid party has 24 MKs and the Religious Zionist party has 14, becoming the third largest party in the Knesset.
The election coalition cobbled together by Netanyahu, in addition to the Religious Zionist Party and its extremist, Otzma Yehudit faction (led by Itamar Ben-Gvir who often incites violence between Israelis and Palestinians) includes the ultra-Orthodox Shas party (11 MK) and United Torah Judaism party (7 MK).
Ben Gvir was convicted of incitement to racism, interfering with a police officer performing his duty, and support for a terrorist organization, the Meir Kahane’s Kach Movement.
In May 2021, he was accused by the Police Commissioner of fanning the flames of violence between Jews and Arabs in mixed cities such as Lod and Acre. What causes concern to many organizations and progressive people is that the Religious Zionism party openly asks for the imposition of religious law, for Israeli rule over the West Bank and the expulsion from Israel of “disloyal” Palestinian citizens. It provokes Muslims by calling for the demolition of the al-Aqsa Mosque – which is one of the holiest places of Islam- and the construction of a Jewish Temple in its place.
Mansour Abbas, the chairman of the Islamist Arab Ra’am party, has warned that if Jews are permitted to pray at the site, war will ensue.
As Netanyahu has announced that the two-state solution has no place on his government’s agenda, Palestinians have lost their hope for a peaceful solution and fear that the government to be formed will be more aggressive and that tensions between Israelis and Arabs will escalate.
All this is a recipe for a violent conflict between Israelis- mainly the settlers and extremists- and Palestinians and Arabs citizens of the state of Israel and will possibly mark the beginning of a new “intifada”.
It may also hinder the normalization and improvement of relations between the state of Israel and the Gulf monarchies, which was achieved through the Abraham accords.
Netanyahu, who was the longest-serving Prime Minister in Israel’s history, will certainly have a very hard time in reaching an agreement with the other coalition parties on the distribution of ministerial posts, where the various parties demand specific portfolios to implement their own policies.
Ben-Gvir said he wants to be the minister of internal security, to be in charge of the Israeli police and policies around Jerusalem’s holy sites.
His political partner, Bezalel Smotrich, said he wants the defence ministry, which also oversees Israeli policy in the occupied West Bank and Gaza and approves settlement building. Netanyahu is expected to try to convince them to take other ministerial posts, to avoid a conflict with the US administration and powerful Jewish associations in the US.
According to press reports, US Senator Bob Menendez, Chairman of the powerful Foreign Relations Committee and a well-known supporter of Israel told Netanyahu in no uncertain terms that forming a government with extremists like Ben Gvir could “seriously erode bipartisan support in Washington.”
Several US Jewish groups, such as the American Jewish Committee, the Reform Party and J Street have expressed concern over the results of Israel’s election and the possible inclusion of Ben-Gvir in the government.
Many European leaders welcomed Netanyahu’s return to power, while the Biden administration, despite its past differences with Netanyahu, congratulated him on his election victory.
“We look forward to continuing to work with the Israeli government on our shared interests and values,” a White House statement said.
Though Netanyahu and Biden had strongly divergent views in the past, they are expected to try to cooperate, in view of the strong alliance between the US and Israel.
Inevitably there will be tensions between them due to different national interests and the relationship between Biden and Netanyahu would not be as cordial as it was between Netanyahu and former President Donald Trump.
Now on a different subject, though Netanyahu attacked the landmark US-brokered agreement reached last month between Israel and Lebanon that delineated their respective maritime borders and vowed to “neutralize it,” if elected, he is not expected to implement his threat, as the deal is beneficial to Israel. Its cancellation will surely enrage the US Administration.
Beirut’s Chief negotiator Bou Saab pointed out that Lebanon has secured “American guarantees” that the maritime border deal with Israel cannot be easily scrapped. If Netanyahu wants to withdraw from the deal, then “he will withdraw from an agreement with the US,” he said.
It cannot be disputed that the Haredi (ultra-orthodox) parties are now able to exercise a big influence on the policies of the new government and on Israeli institutions.
They could also cause problems with Palestinians and Arabs in general as well as some of Israel’s allies.
However, Netanyahu is a capable politician with very long experience in managing difficult situations and a proven political survivor, so he has a good chance to succeed in imposing his views on his religious allies and keep them in check, in order to protect the best interests of Israel.