Defying speculation and political analysis, an already five-time and the longest serving Prime Minister (for fifteen years) in the history of Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu once again returned to power in the twenty-fifth Knesset elections held on November 1, 2022. He has been asked by President Isaac Herzog to form the new government and with this, Netanyahu will begin his sixth term as Prime Minister. It is worth mentioning here that the November elections are the fifth parliamentary elections in less than four years in Israel, caused by unstable coalition politics.
Many of Netanyahu’s opponents as also political analysts had written him off as a significant player in national politics of Israel after he was implicated on corruption charges. He continued with his political and legal battle to prove his innocence and establish his political relevance in national politics. Perhaps the electoral outcome was a surprise for Netanyahu himself. Not only did his Likud party achieve a major victory with 32 seats, but the performance of his two major political allies Itamar Ben Gvir’s Jewish Power Party and Bezalel Smotrich’s Religious Zionist Party with total fourteen seats[i]was equally remarkable. Two other Ultra-Orthodox Parties, United Torah Judaism and Shaaz allied with Netanyahu, secured eighteen seats, taking the total tally of Netanyahu-led coalition to sixty-four out of a total of one hundred twenty seats in the Israeli Knesset.
This constituent of three major political blocks (Likud, Jewish Power Party and Religious Zionist Party) with the majority seats in Knesset would perhaps ensure the most stable government in Israel in recent years. Immediately after early trends started indicating Netanyahu’s imminent victory, his supporters welcomed him in Nation Building Centre in West Jerusalem amidst cheer, calling him “King and Bibi”.[ii]Many had expected that outgoing Prime Minster Yair Lapid would pose some challenge to Netanyahu but his centrist party, “There is Future”; a part of a larger block (Block of Change) had to remain content only with 24 seats.
These elections have also seen the role of army generals in the political arena declining. The centre-right coalition, significantly dominated by army veterans and known in media parlance as “General Camp”; headed by former Defence Minister Genera Benny Gantz (a former Chief of Staff), Gideon Saar (an old Likudist) and General Gadi was able to win only twelve seats, much behind the tallies achieved by Zionist and religious groups as a coalition partner of Netanyahu’s Likud party.[iii]Moreover, Israel, for the first time will have a government devoid of any centrist or left block as the Meretz Movement (leftist party) headed by Galon,[iv]again part of larger opposition Block of Change failed to reach the threshold.
The new Knesset will be dominated by the religious figures, which would shape a new political discourse in the country. It is not only Netanyahu’s coalition which is dominated by Religious-Zionist figures but party like “Israel is Our Home” headed by Finance Minister Lieberman and part of Block of Change also belongs to religious orientation and has won five seats.[v]
Along with other traditional political blocks, Arab political parties were also among the major losers in this election as collectively they could not get more than 10 seats. The United Arab List headed by Mansour Abbas, a major player in 2020 election with fifteen seats, was a significant loser. This time the Democratic Front for Peace and Equality secured five seats and rest claimed by Arab Joint List.[vi]
This was because of political factionalism and ideological differences within the united blocs. The poor performance on the part of Arab parties was also reflective of growing disenchantment with the Palestinian leadership and its failure to deliver. As one report suggests that only 46% of the Arab voters visited polling booths.[vii]This can be largely due to existing political stalemate in the internal politics of Palestine.
Number of women representatives in the newly formed Knesset has also declined. Earlier about half of the coalition’s members were women and a third of the ministry was dominated by females but this time only nine of the total sixty-four seats won by Netanyahu-led coalitions are women.[viii]
The victory of Netanyahu reflects people’s urge for a stable government and their trust in his leadership whose political craft in the past has been instrumental in bringing larger Arab world into the Israel diplomatic fold.
According to a report in the Times of Israel, Itamar Ben Gvir, Netanyahu’s ultra-rightist ally who has been made Israel’ National Security Minister is someone who wants Israel to be a nationalist, Zionist Jewish state.[ix]But in a recent interview, he said that he is now a transformed politician and has modified many of his past political orientation. His approach remains to be seen.
Though Netanyahu has been at the helm of the affairs for almost fifteen years in Israeli politics, but still his current tenure is likely to come across as a new set of politics confronting a new political dynamic, given the odd coalition he would be leading in the course of next four years. Being the longest serving Prime Minster of Israel, he has seen the Palestinian politics evolving and is well aware of the internal political division and growing ideological split and how the successive emergence of several extremist outfits has ruined the prospect of any unified politics within Palestine. The emergence of new extremist group Lion’s Dense in West Bank recently has further diminished all hopes of any negotiation with Israel, stalled for decades. Lion’s Dense is a recent phenomenon and their cadres are reported to be targeting both the Israeli forces and the forces loyal to Palestinian Authority.
Netanyahu should have no difficulty in working with the Biden administration because he has worked with both the Republican and Democrat Administrations during his decade-old tenure as Prime Minister. Moreover present Biden Administration has not been opposed to any of the Trump-era Israel doctrine as during his July, 2022 visit to Israel, President Biden had not only welcomed the Abraham Accord signed during the tenure of Trump and Netanyahu, but he called for further rejuvenation of US-Israel ties. But Netanyahu may have to face some pressure because of his new coalition partners who might pursue a policy, not in convergence with the larger parameter of traditional US-Israel relationship. According to a Hebrew news website, Walla, the Biden administration might have some issues with Ben Gvir, but perhaps Netanyahu would help overcome this, as Ben Gvir has played a significant role in bringing Netanyahu back to power.
The US Secretary of State Blinken and National Security Advisor Sullivan made it very clear that they would have no problem in working with the elected government in Israel.[x] According to Walla, UAE, the strongest ally of Israel among the Abraham Accord signatories, has expressed same apprehension about the new coalition but this would not have any effective impact on the growing Israel-UAE relationship. Only within two years of signing the Abraham Accord, the UAE has granted citizenship to five thousand Israelis and both sides have signed a series of economic, political, strategic and defence deals.
The most challenging front for Netanyahu will be the Russia-Ukraine conflict because his predecessor has openly pursued a pro-Ukraine policy and hence bilateral relationship with Russia has significantly been restrained. Unlike his two predecessors, Netanyahu is likely to reorient Israel-Russia relationship as he has always spoken of his personal bond with his Russian counterpart and he has visited Moscow more than any other capital cities during his premiership.[xi] To improve the Israel-Russia ties, Netanyahu is likely to come to a gray square after his predecessor openly showed partisanship towards Ukraine along with the US and other European allies.
The fate of Lebanon-Israel Maritime Deal, signed in the last days of Lapid’s government remains to be seen. The election-time anti-deal rhetoric echoed by Netanyahu when he had claimed that Israel-Lebanon Maritime Deal would suffer the fate of the Oslo agreement was not helpful. Netanyahu’s government in its pursuit of Iran-centric policy in the region would continue to apply the maximalist pressure on US against any resumption of the JCPOA. Moreover given the ongoing Russia-Ukraine conflict and changing diplomatic priority in the global politics, the nuclear deal is facing a stalemate and both the US and the Europeans are also finding it difficult to take it further.
As far as India-Israel relationship under Netanyahu’s government is concerned, it is likely to strengthen further because both countries already enjoy strong and stable relations. Immediately after the victory of Netanyahu, Prime Minister Modi tweeted in Hebrew language congratulating Netanyahu and said that he is looking forward to continue the joint efforts to deepen the strategic partnership further. It is worth recalling here that PM Modi was the first India’s Prime Minster to visit Israel in 2017 and it was during the tenure of Netanyahu and both leaders share a strong personal bond.
*Dr. Fazzur Rahman Siddiqui, Senior Research Fellow, Indian Council of World Affairs, New Delhi.
The views expressed are personal.
[i]Israeli parliamentary Elections: Netanyahu-Led Blocks Takes the Lead, France 24(Arabic), November 3, 2022, Accessedhttps://bit.ly/3AgTGvQ November 10, 2022
[ii]Netanyahu: The King, Anadolus Agency, November 3, 2011, accessed https://bit.ly/3g342bX November 15, 2022.
[iii]Nazal Mohammad Wateed, Return of Netanyahu and Establishment of Zionist Religious Current, Al-Arab-al-Jadeed (An Arabic Daily), November 2, 2022, accessed https://bit.ly/3UR5oFB November 10, 2022.
[iv]Israeli Elections: Between Carrot and Stick, Alquds-Al-Arabi (An Arabic Daily), October 28, 2022, Accessed,https://bit.ly/3AfXJZC November 10, 2022.
[v]Nazal Mohammad Wateed, Return of Netanyahu and Establishment of Zionist Religious Current, Al-Arab-al-Jadeed (An Arabic Daily), November 2, 2022, Accessed https://bit.ly/3UR5oFB November 10, 2022
[vi] Yasser Hujera: A New Knesset Member, Alquds-Al-Arabi (An Arabic Daily), November 18, 2022, Accessed https://bit.ly/3OgzZKt November 18, 2022
[vii]Four Days Before the elections: A report, Al-Quds-Al-Arabi, October 28, 2022, Accessed https://bit.ly/3UKDuvq November 10, 2022
[viii] Israeli Liberal Fear Netanyahu’s Far-Right Gov Will Undo the Gain, Associate press, The Daily Sabah, November 16, 2022, Accessed https://bit.ly/3VoP3bB 16, 2022
[ix]Nadri Safadi, Return of Netanyahu: Good or Bad, Railyoum(An Arabic Daily), November 3, 2022,Accessedhttps://bit.ly/3TAMIJd November 10, 2022
[x]Nadri Safadi, Return of Netanyahu: Good or Bad, Railyoum(An Arabic Daily), November 3, 2022,Accessedhttps://bit.ly/3TAMIJd November 10, 2022
[xi]Areeb Rantavi, Sixth term for Netanyahu, Radio Sawa, November 6, 2022, Accessed https://arbne.ws/3E8XtwJNovember10, 2022