It looks very much as if Israel’s longest-serving prime minister, Benyamin (Bibi) Netanyahu, will soon be back in office. The results of the 2022 elections (the fifth in four years) give his bloc a clear lead in the Knesset, Israel’s parliament.
In each of the four elections, Netanyahu has made himself the main issue. It’s an issue that has cut across traditional left-right divisions – which in June last year produced a coalition government that stretched from the hard right through to the left. This coalition was essentially united on one issue – that Netanyahu, who is standing trial on corruption charges, should be kept out of office.
This unlikely alliance had a wafer-thin majority of one, but was unique in Israeli history in representing a government backed by an Arab party, the Islamist Ra’am. It managed just 17 months in office.
Bibi’s new friends
Netanyahu returns to office with radically different coalition partners, thanks to the far-right Religious Zionist party more than doubling their seats from six to 14. Netanyahu has won not as a result of any major gain of his own Likud party, which increased its Knesset representation by just two members from 30 to 32 seats. His likely victory is a result of his careful coalition building through his support for far-right unity which would maximise the right-wing vote.
Netanyahu and his supporters have spent the past year and half pilling on pressure on the right-wing supporters of the coalition. This has been so successful that its most right-wing component, Yamina – the party of Naftali Bennett (the first prime minister of the anti-Bibi Coalition) has been eliminated from the new Knesset entirely. While the anti-Bibi parties squabbled among themselves, Netanyahu consolidated his base and offered a disciplined alliance parties comprising Likud, Shas, the United Torah Judaism Party and the Religious Zionists.
Despite this there has been no major swing to the right in Israeli politics – rather there has been a swing within the right to more extreme positions. The popular vote between the pro-Netanyahu and anti-Netanyahu blocs is roughly tied. Likud’s popular vote is actually slightly down on 2021. Meanwhile on the anti-Bibi side, Yesh Atid – the party of the current prime minister Yair Lapid – won seven more seats to reach a total representation of 24 in the Knesset – but this was mainly at the expense of allies, such as Labour which lost 3 seats.
The change of fortunes has been almost entirely down to the way the two blocs dealt with Israel’s proportional electoral system. It is based on a national list system. All parties that receive at least 3.25% of the vote receive seats in exact proportion to their strength. Parties that fall under that threshold are excluded and seats that they would have won are reallocated to those who qualify.
In this election, the left-wing Meretz received just over 3% but will not gain seats. Balad, an Arab party, is in the same position. As a result, six seats which could have been added to the anti-Netanyahu bloc have been reassigned. The left (Labour and Meretz) and the Arab parties (Hadash-Tal, Ra’am and Balad) could have made electoral alliances and maximised their representation, but factional interests prevailed – much to the advantage of Netanyahu.
The success of the far-right Religious Zionist alliance is composed of an earlier alliance, Otzma Yehudit and the homophobic Noam Party. Ideologically this gathering of the far right follows the Kach party which advocated the expulsion of Palestinian Israelis but was banned as racist and terrorist.
Its main leaders, Itamar Ben Gvir and Bezalel Smotrich, have a long history as racist rabble-rousers and have faced allegations of involvement in violent campaigns against Palestinian citizens of Israel and with settler violence against Palestinians in the occupied territories.
Ben-Gvir has been convicted of inciting to racism and is known for drawing his gun in confrontations with Palestinians. He supports the late Baruch Goldstein who murdered 29 Palestinians (while at prayer) in 1994. Now he is in line to join Netanyahu’s cabinet. He has said that he wants to be security minister.
It will be up to Netanyahu which posts will be given to the Religious Zionists, but as the third-largest party in the Knesset they will expect prominent positions. In Israel’s Haaretz newspaper, prominent political commentator Anshel Pfeffer has suggested that a coalition with the Religious Zionists might prove a temporary convenience for Netanyhau.
Pfeffer also suggests that tensions between the Smotrich and Ben-Gvir could produce a split. Netanyahu may then turn to other coalition partners such as the centre right National Union. Based on his track record Netanyahu will certainly do whatever he thinks is best to remain in power.
Wave of populism
Israel now faces a government that will contain far-right racists with a populist agenda that includes weakening the role of the courts in the constitutional system. Many fear that the decline of the rule of law will have serious consequences for Israeli democracy.
Writing in the New York Times before the results were known, political scholar and public opinion expert Dahlia Scheindlin warned that: “Israel’s attacks on the judiciary deepen the country’s historical skepticism toward equality, human rights and democracy itself.”
What these elections have shown is that Israel is very much part of the populist wave which has brought the far right to parliaments and governments across the world. It is sobering to think that the success of the Israeli far right is in line with recent election results in Sweden and Italy. It perhaps demonstrates the success of Zionism in normalising the idea of a Jewish state. Far from being a light amongst the nations, it shares the darkness of the age.
John Strawson does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.