King Bibi returns to office with a resounding victory at the polls

The ever-ambitious Netanyahu will not hesitate to sacrifice his ideological ally Ben-Gvir, to form the next Israeli government.
Israel's ex-premier and leader of the Likud party Benjamin Netanyahu addresses supporters at campaign headquarters in Jerusalem early on November 2, 2022. (Photo | AFP)
Israel's ex-premier and leader of the Likud party Benjamin Netanyahu addresses supporters at campaign headquarters in Jerusalem early on November 2, 2022. (Photo | AFP)

Benjamin Netanyahu is back. This time with a resounding victory in Tuesday’s parliamentary elections in Israel. Once again disproving the opinion polls which predicted a close fight with a wafer-thin majority, his right-religious bloc is poised to secure at least 65 seats in the 120-member Knesset. This margin will also enhance his ability to wean away other parties towards making a more stable government. While the actual distribution of seats will be known only after counting postal ballots, mostly of Israeli diplomats abroad and military personnel, with over 90 per cent of ballots being counted, the return of Netanyahu is certain.

Since he took over the reins of the party following the 1992 elections, this was Netanyahu’s eleventh Knesset election as the leader of Likud; earlier, he formed governments on five occasions and failed to do so on the remaining five. Even before the current victory, Netanyahu already has the distinction of being the longest-serving prime minister of Israel and has served in that capacity for over 15 years, initially during 1996-1999 and then again between 2009 and 2021. Indeed, he has dominated the Israeli political landscape since Yitzhak Shamir lost to Yitzhak Rabin in the June 1992 election.

Netanyahu benefitted immensely from the Likud’s party discipline, cohesion and unity. Since the founding of its forerunner, the Herut, in 1948, the Likud only saw four leaders: Menachem Begin, Yitzhak Shamir, Netanyahu and Ariel Sharon. The Labour, on the contrary, had over a dozen leaders during the same period.

In addition, the proverbial TINA (There is no alternative) factor worked wonders for Netanyahu. Though there were periodic internal contests for leadership, he has succeeded in outmanoeuvring all his rivals; some of his late-day competitors, like former prime minister Naftali Bennet, leader of the Russian-immigrants based Yisrael Beitenu Avigdor Lieberman and former Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, were once Netanyahu’s close confidants.

Tuesday’s Knesset election was the twenty-fifth since the first election in January 1949 and the fifth since April 2019, when the current phase of political uncertainties began. If two elections in 2019 proved inconclusive, the 2020 election saw Netanyahu temporarily holding on to power with the help of the Blue and White Party led by former general Benny Gantz. The 2021 election led to an unwieldy and internally contradictory coalition headed by former businessman-billionaire Bennet. Finally, the wafer-thin 61-member government could survive only for a year, with Foreign Minister Yair Lapid becoming the caretaker Prime Minister a few weeks before the latest election.

Out of the 6.7 million eligible voters—a marginal increase of over 210,000 voters since the June 2021 election—over 73percent, the highest since 1999, exercised their franchise. To be eligible to enter the Knesset, a party must secure 3.25 per cent of the valid votes. This proved too high for the Left-wing Meretz and Arab Balad, and this partly consolidated the right-religious bloc.

Moreover, the Arab parties are deeply divided; in several recent elections, the four prominent Arab parties fought under the banner of the Joint List and maximised their gains. Indeed, in March 2020, they secured 15 sears, the highest in Israel’s history. But ideological and personality clashes and Ra’am’s willingness to join the Bennet cabinet in June last year—again a first since 1948—undermined the Arab unity. Thus, as feared, Balad could not make it to the Knesset, while two other lists managed to keep the joint Arab representation in the Knesset at ten.

Now President Isaac Herzog will begin the government formation process after the formal notification of the results by the election commission. He would likely ask Netanyahu, the leader of the bloc with the highest chances of forming the government, to explore the possibilities. Going by past precedents, the president would have to extend the initial timeline of 28 days by another 14 days. If Netanyahu fails, the president will initiate the same process with the leader of the other bloc.

As the final results are coming, a few things are clearer. First, though the gains of the Likud are marginal (perhaps two seats higher than in 2021), this was a decisive victory for the right-religious bloc, which eluded Netanyahu during the four previous elections. Second, the real winner is the Religious Zionist party led by Itamar Ben-Gvir. The rise of Ben-Gvir, known for his extremist views towards Israel’s Arab citizens and disdain for the rule of law, has caused concerns both within and outside Israel. During the election campaign, Netanyahu even declared that Ben-Gvir would occupy a prominent position in his cabinet. Ben-Gvir and his supporters marginalised other right-wing groups, and the list is poised to emerge as the third large bloc in the Knesset.

Third, a Netanyahu-led coalition will be more stable and ideologically cohesive than any alternatives under Lapid or others. At the same time, given social and ideological cleavages, the political instability in Israel will not end anytime soon. Fourth, the Knesset elections are decided on domestic issues and not on foreign policy achievements. If Netanyahu could not capitalise on the Abraham Accords in 2021, the recent maritime agreement with Lebanon did not help Lapid either.

Fifth, a Netanyahu-led government in Israel will be manna for the republicans in the US. Netanyahu will revive the Obama-era tension over Iran and the peace process with the Palestinians. Hence, one could expect some redrawing of relations with Washington during the run-up to the 2024 US presidential elections. Six, under Netanyahu, Israel will have more time to work towards expanding its footprints in the Arab world at the cost of the Palestinian track. This might provoke more unrest and violence in the Palestinian territories. Seventh, his return to office will only increase the focus on the ongoing corruption cases against Netanyahu. One should anticipate illiberal rhetoric against the Supreme Court and ‘popular mandate’ would be used to curtail the functioning of the judiciary.

Above all, despite the ideological cohesion, including Ben-Gvir in the cabinet will create tension between Israel and the US, especially with the liberal segment of the Jewish community. Hence, President Herzog might follow the 1980s practice of his father and predecessor, Chaim Herzog, and nudge Netanyahu to form a unity government to address pressing national issues. Should such a situation become inevitable, the ever-ambitious Netanyahu will not hesitate to sacrifice his ideological ally Ben-Gvir, to form the next Israeli government.

P R Kumaraswamy

Professor at JNU. Teaches contemporary Middle East

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