Israel: most extreme government ever on the cards
Israel’s fifth election in two-and-a-half years has given long-time prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu a clear route back to power after a spell in opposition. He looks set to profit from gains made by far-right nationalist and racist politicians who can expect to be rewarded with powerful ministerial roles in his coalition government. Netanyahu’s return to power may enable him to suppress the corruption charges brought against him – but at the steep price of further normalising hatred and extremism. Continuing attacks on the rights of Palestinians and increasing violence seem the inevitable result.
Israel’s great political survivor, Benjamin Netanyahu, is set to return to power. Israel’s fifth election since April 2019 has seemingly ended a long-running political deadlock that saw Netanyahu, the country’s longest-serving prime minister, spend over a year in opposition. But the country will pay a high price for its newly acquired electoral stability: the new Netanyahu-led government will likely include a set of freshly emboldened far-right nationalist and racist politicians.
Netanyahu heads the right-wing Likud party, long established as one of Israel’s major political forces. Having served as prime minister from 1996 to 1999, he made his comeback in 2009. But in the April 2019 election Likud and its main challenger, the newly formed and broadly centrist Blue and White three-party grouping, won the same number of seats.
Coalition government is the norm in Israel. The Knesset, Israel’s parliament, has 120 seats, and no party has ever won the 61 needed to rule outright. The voting system is highly proportionate, with people voting for parties on a nationwide basis and candidates from party lists allocated seats through a proportionality formula. A relatively low vote of 3.25 per cent – raised from a two per cent threshold in 2015 – is required to win seats. This makes for a fragmented and turbulent politics, with parties and alliances constantly forming and fracturing and candidates swapping allegiance ahead of elections in return for positions on party lists.
Netanyahu has habitually been able to form coalition governments with right-wing nationalist and religious parties, but in April 2019 was unable to do so, in part due to a disagreement among potential coalition members over the exemption of ultra-Orthodox students from compulsory military service.
Another factor deterring some potential partners were the allegations of corruption that have long swirled around Netanyahu. A corruption investigation began in 2016, and in November 2019 Netanyahu was indicted for bribery, fraud and breach of trust. He’s accused of receiving money and gifts from wealthy business leaders and offering advantages to media companies if they gave him favourable coverage. His trial continues.
Having failed to form a government, in May 2019 Netanyahu pushed through a vote to dissolve the Knesset and hold another election. He did so before his opponent, Blue and White leader Benny Gantz, could be named prime minister-designate and given his chance to form a government. This meant Netanyahu stayed on as prime minister in the meantime.
Held in September 2019, the next election saw the two competing major lists both lose seats in favour of smaller parties, among them ultra-Orthodox and hardline conservative parties, while the Joint List also made gains: this was a coalition of parties supported by Arab citizens of Israel, who make up 20 per cent of the population.
Netanyahu again failed to form a government with the various parties on the right and rejected calls to stand aside to enable the formation a broad unity government. Some Joint List parties backed a call to make Gantz prime minister, but neither of the leading groups could muster 61 supporters. Yet another election resulted, in March 2020, initially continuing the deadlock.
2021: Netanyahu into opposition
In April 2020, however, a compromise was reached: it was agreed that Netanyahu would lead a national unity government for 18 months, after which he would hand over to Gantz. The government contained equal numbers of ministers from Likud and Blue and White, along with representation from several smaller parties.
But it didn’t last. Failure to agree on the passing of a budget in December 2020 triggered the automatic dissolution of the Knesset, paving the way for a fourth election in March 2021. Netanyahu was accused of forcing the crisis to avoid having to hand over as prime minister. With the Blue and White alliance having broken up as a result of the 2020 negotiations, Likud was virtually certain to finish first. But it dropped to 30 seats, its lowest total during this run of elections.
Netanyahu again failed to piece together a coalition, and the brief was handed to Yair Lapid, leader of Yesh Atid, a liberal party formerly part of the Blue and White alliance, which finished second on 17 seats. A month of talks then followed to bring together a patchwork eight-party coalition government covering parties from the far-right to the left, and including – for the first time – an Arab party, the United Arab List.
This government, confirmed by a knife-edge 60-to-59 Knesset vote in June 2021, was united by one thing: a determination to end Netanyahu’s rule and with it his corrupting influence on politics. The apparent plan was for the coalition to focus on the economy and pandemic recovery rather than issues on which its members were profoundly divided – particularly the status of Palestine.
The government was however led by a figure associated with division: the new prime minister was Naftali Bennett, leader of the right-wing New Right party. The price of his party’s cooperation was that Bennett would serve as prime minister until September 2023 before handing over to Lapid.
It suggested no government was plausible that didn’t contain a sizeable share of right-wing nationalists: Bennett had publicly expressed support for Israeli settlers in occupied territories and Israeli annexation of those territories, and opposed the creation of a Palestinian state.
Not surprisingly, the coalition didn’t last, and nor did it spell the end of Netanyahu’s political career. He remained a vocal opposition figure, working to pick apart the contradictions of the coalition. The coalition meanwhile made a series of uneasy compromises on the role of settlers and rights of Palestinians that left nobody satisfied.
The coalition lost its majority in April 2022, when a member of Bennett’s party quit in a religious row, receiving a warm welcome into the opposition ranks. In June it lost a vote on the application of Israeli law in West Bank settlements. With the Netanyahu-led opposition repeatedly threatening a no-confidence vote that might allow it to try to piece together an alternative coalition, the government instead brought a vote to dissolve the Knesset and hold another election. Lapid took over as caretaker prime minister until the November vote.
2022: extremism rises
Both Likud and Yesh Atid picked up seats in the latest election. But the real story is what happened with the rest of the vote. Third place was claimed by the far-right Religious Zionist Party, whose name makes its position clear: it’s opposed to any territorial concessions and supports the annexation of the largest part of the West Bank, known as Area C. Its leader, Bezalel Smotrich, has a history of making anti-Arab and homophobic remarks. At the November election it picked up almost 11 per cent of the vote, giving it its highest-ever number of seats, an influential 14.
In the election, the Religious Zionist Party ran a shared list with two other far-right and even more extreme Zionist parties: Noam, which takes a strongly anti-LGBTQI+ stance, and Otzma Yehudit, an explicitly anti-Arab party that calls for complete Israeli rule of Palestinian territory and the deportation of people deemed not loyal to Israel. Otzma Yehudit traces its origins back to the Kach party, banned for inciting racism, and is associated with the Kahanist ideology, which calls for the establishment of a Jewish theocracy with no political rights for non-Jews. Several states have designated Kahanist groups as terrorists.
Meanwhile, falling below the threshold and therefore out of the Knesset is the left-wing Meretz, a member of the 2021 coalition government, which advocates for a solution to the conflict that recognises an independent Palestinian state. Also dropping out of parliament is Balad, one of the Arab parties formerly part of the Joint List, with the Arab vote now split. Meanwhile the centre-left Labor Party, which once supplied Israel with its prime ministers, has slipped to a minimal representation of four seats as parliament’s smallest party. These changes make an alternative coalition to one led by Likud impossible.
Netanyahu is said to have intervened before the election to encourage the extremist anti-Arab party leaders not to run their own lists, and risk falling below the threshold, but instead to stand on a common list. When the threshold was raised to 3.5 per cent, the intention seems to have been to reduce fragmentation and make government formation easier. But the reform backfired. It incentivised small, typically extremist parties to work together so as not to be left out, while encouraging bigger parties to work with them to benefit from their votes. As a result, extremists have become a more powerful force in negotiations to form governments. From Netanyahu’s point of view, these extremist parties win votes his party probably can’t – and if they want to be part of government, they have to work with him.
Now those once-fringe parties expect to be rewarded with a share of power. An alternative would be to form a broad coalition with more liberal parties, but Netanyahu’s determination to be prime minister and escape his corruption charges seem impossible barriers to overcome. By working with the Religious Zionist list and customary coalition partners Shas and United Torah Judaism, Netanyahu can command a clinching 64 seats.
Already Netanyahu has met with Otzma Yehudit’s leader, Itamar Ben-Gvir. He’s a well-known rabble-rouser infamous for brandishing a gun during arguments. As a lawyer he has a history of defending violent Jewish extremists and in 2007 was himself convicted of racist incitement against Arabs. Once considered too controversial to play any role in government, he now wants to be public security minister.
Netanyahu has also recently met with Noam’s leader Avi Moaz, who has called for the banning of LGBTQI+ Pride events and supported so-called ‘conversion therapy’ – discredited practices that falsely claim to change sexual orientation or gender identity, which human rights groups consider to be akin to torture. He may be hoping for control of the health ministry to pursue this end.
The centre has shifted rightwards and the extreme has entered the mainstream.
Other likely asks by potential coalition partners include a renewed and expanded programme of settlement building in occupied areas, changes to make it even easier for Israel soldiers to shoot people and harder to prosecute them when they do, and a bonfire of laws that protect LGBTQI+ rights.
A point of unity is attacking the judiciary, often the only force standing in the way of further expansion of settlements. There may well be moves to change laws to retrospectively protect Netanyahu from corruption charges and give the Knesset more power over the courts – something that could limit the ability of the Supreme Court to rule against laws on human rights grounds.
More trouble ahead
For many Palestinians and Arab citizens of Israel, this is so much political circus. For years it has been clear they are second-class citizens and any hopes for a peaceful outcome that recognises an independent Palestinian state have long receded.
The continued settlement of occupied territories is seeing people forcibly evicted from homes their families have lived in for generations. People are living with daily strict limitations on their freedom of movement and struggling to access fundamentals like water and electricity. Humiliation is an everyday experience. Violence from security forces, and impunity for violence, continues: since 2000, it’s estimated over 10,000 Palestinians have been killed by security forces. Journalists are among those targeted. Organisations are being closed down and activists jailed. Access to civic freedoms continues to deteriorate.
The series of five elections has seen repeated validation of settlers’ claims, not just by Netanyahu and his allies, but by many of those opposing him. It’s been an ultra-nationalist race to the bottom – and it may not have reached the bottom yet. Far-right politics have become normalised, with candidates competing on the basis of who is most hostile towards Palestinians.
Perhaps the most disturbing trend is the way young voters are skewing towards the far right. Ben-Givr seems particularly popular among young people. These are Israel’s future, and many of them, having grown up with uncertainty since the collapse of the 1990s Oslo Accords, see straight-talking certainty in the bigotry pedalled by Ben-Givr. If they stay onboard, extremism could be here to stay.
Against the backdrop of repeated elections, violence has intensified. Attacks carried out by young Palestinians, operating from areas lately outside the Palestinian Authority’s control, have escalated, killing at least 11 Israelis. In response Israel launched Operation Breakwater, a counter-offensive that has seen over 2,220 raids focusing on the West Bank cities of Jenin and Nablus, killing at least 90 Palestinians. Israel’s most recent bombardment of the Gaza Strip came in August, with close to 50 people killed.
It’s hard to imagine any scenario other than worsening violence. Violence from the Palestinian side will continue to be met with a disproportionate Israeli response by a government tilted to the far right and happy to keep ramping up an uneven fight. Israel’s recently improved relations with some Arab states could be among the collateral damage.
Israel’s latest election will probably bring stability, but only in the sense that yet another election is unlikely in the short term. Meanwhile, another line has been crossed. The centre has shifted rightwards and the extreme has entered the mainstream. Israel will soon have its most extreme government ever, with potentially lasting consequences.
OUR CALLS FOR ACTION
The Israeli government should immediately cease all targeting of protesters, human rights defenders and journalists, and conduct thorough, independent and impartial investigations into all killings to ensure accountability.
The government should ensure that United Nations special rapporteurs and members of the United Nations Independent International Commission of Inquiry have full and unhindered access to Israel and Palestinian territories.
Parties in opposition must call out and challenge extremism by politicians who are likely to form part of the new government.
Cover photo by Reuters/Ronen Zvulun via Gallo Images