Editor’s Note: Aaron David Miller is a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and author of “The End of Greatness: Why America Can’t Have (and Doesn’t Want) Another Great President.” Miller was a Middle East negotiator in Democratic and Republican administrations. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own. Read more opinion on CNN.
If former Saturday Night Live great and actor Bill Murray wasn’t hired as a technical adviser to Israel’s Central Elections Committee, he surely might have been. Based on pre-election polling it seemed that Israel was headed for yet another Groundhog Day-style hung election for the fifth time in just short of four years.
But this election seems to have produced (final figures won’t be available until week’s end) what the previous four could not: a majority for Benjamin (Bibi) Netanyahu and his allies and the likely emergence of the most right-wing government in Israel’s history.
Indeed, the biggest star in the new political firmament wasn’t Netanyahu but the extremist Itamar Ben Gvir, whose bloc Religious Zionism is now the third largest in the Knesset. Here are four things you should know about this election and what may lie ahead.
To Bibi or not to Bibi
Like its four predecessors, this election had one central fault line, if not organizing principle. Are you for or against the return of Netanyahu? Love him or despise him, Netanyahu, at 73, has been the longest governing prime minister in Israel’s history.
Even under indictment and on trial for bribery, fraud and breach of trust, Netanyahu is still the most consequential politician on the Israeli scene today and is on the cusp of perhaps his greatest triumph – returning to the prime ministry with a majority.
For Netanyahu this election was truly existential. Had he failed to secure a governing majority – one that is likely to pass legislation to postpone or even cancel his trial – he may well have had to face the consequences of a guilty verdict or a plea bargain that would have driven him away from politics.
But Netanyahu’s victory wasn’t just an “all about me” headline. It reflects and consolidates trend lines that have been in evidence for quite some time. Likud is the most stable and durable political party in Israel’s system. Netanyahu is its master and Israel is a nation now shaped more by the right wing – and perhaps its most extreme elements – than at any point in its history.
The left and center-left in Israel once dominated by the iconic Labor Party, the driving political force for the first three decades of independence, has been reduced to a shadow of its former self with just a handful of seats in the Knesset.
And while the center-left and right bloc of the caretaker Prime Minister Yair Lapid made a respectable showing – perhaps even garnering more votes – the fracturing of the left and the Arab vote gave the advantage to the more cohesive and disciplined Netanyahu bloc.
Indeed, without overdramatizing matters, Netanyahu’s victory now introduces a cult of personalities – Netanyahu and Ben Gvir – that will strengthen the forces of radical nationalism; populism and an us against them mentality dividing and polarizing the country.
And if the Netanyahu government succeeds in restricting the powers of the Israel Supreme Court, imposing control over judicial appointments, deepening the grip of Jewish law over public life and reversing the court’s decision to strike down legislation aimed at legalizing West Bank settlements, Israeli democracy will be fundamentally undermined, reinforcing the forces of illiberalism, ethnocentrism and disrespect for the rule of law.
There’s the right and the extreme right
Israel has been drifting rightward for years. Indeed according to analyst Tamar Hermann of the Israeli Democracy Institute, a full 60% of the Israeli electorate is right-wing; 12-14% identifies as left and the remainder are in the so-called center.
But while polling had predicted that the Religious Zionism – a bloc of three extremist parties that collectively embody a racist, Jewish supremacist, anti-Arab and homophobic view – would do well in the election, the extent of their success was nonetheless stunning.
Religious Zionism doubled its numbers from the 2021 election and Gvir, the clear star of the bloc, attracted new voters – and according to exit polls, raised national turnout by about 6%.
It’s also going to prove a stunning moment for Netanyahu who midwifed this unholy alliance in an effort to maximize his chances of securing the magic number of 60-plus seats to form a government. It’s hardly a coincidence that one of the parties in this bloc led by Bezalel Smotrich has authored a plan to reform (read emasculate) the judicial system and ensure that Netanyahu is immune from prosecution.
The new prime minister is now beholden to these extremists and the two ultra-Orthodox parties who will have a long list of demands. Indeed, Likud polled 31 seats, the right wingers and ultras have as many or more, effectively making him a minority within his own government.
More than that Netanyahu now has a partner-rival in Ben Gvir who, at 46, is just starting his rise in Israeli politics. It should surprise no one if Netanyahu tries to reach out to the more centrist party of Benny Gantz and Gideon Saar to join his coalition to “save the nation” in an effort to check Ben Gvir or at a minimum to lessen his extremist demands.
One might be forgiven for thinking that this kind of narrow right-wing government might not last. But there may be more that binds this coalition together than divides it. The two Orthodox parties have been out of power and are eager to secure support for their religious schools and institutions.
The Ben Gvir-dominated Religious Zionism bloc sees participation in the government as a way to legitimize his movement, expand his base and his own political horizons. He began his election victory speech by declaring, “I’m still not prime minister.” And Netanyahu surely will try mightily to keep this coalition together in order to secure his get-out-of-jail-free card through legislation.
How will this government actually behave? It’s safe to say as Israel’s 75th anniversary approaches next year, it won’t bring the country any closer to tackling the domestic and foreign policy challenges it faces and will almost certainly make them worse. At home, Israel will be increasingly polarized, with an independent judiciary and rule of law under serious threat.
Netanyahu has proven himself inherently risk-averse when it comes to acting on matters of war and peace. And he’ll try and keep Ben Gvir far away from influencing Israel’s national security; and push back on his demands to disband the Palestinian Authority, annex the West Bank and expel Palestinians.
But there will be more settlements and support for settlers; more effort to consolidate control over Jerusalem; relations with Israel’s Arab citizens will likely deteriorate with fewer resources for their community and if there’s a serious confrontation with Palestinians in the West Bank or in Jerusalem the odds of it morphing into a conflict between Israeli Jews and Arabs will likely grow.
There will be some constraints on the government’s behavior. Netanyahu is certainly not interested in a confrontation with Hamas or Hezbollah. He’ll want to preserve the recently concluded maritime boundary agreement with Lebanon, maintain the Abraham Accords with the UAE and Bahrain and to lay the groundwork for relations with Saudi Arabia.
Netanyahu and Biden: An inevitable blow up?
Neither President Joe Biden nor Netanyahu will seek out a confrontation. The White House has already put out the following statement. “We look forward to continuing to work with the Israeli government on our shared interests and values.” Both are far too busy with other matters to want such a problematic distraction.
But even without being tethered to the extremist Ben Gvir, Netanyahu’s relations with Biden would have been difficult as their views on settlements, treatment of Palestinians in the West Bank and building in Jerusalem would have clashed.
On Iran, Netanyahu’s rhetoric will intensify. And should the Biden Administration have an opportunity to revive the Iran nuclear accord, Netanyahu will resume his earlier campaign in 2015 to make common cause with Republicans to oppose it.
Indeed, Netanyahu, much like Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, would be much more comfortable with the return of Donald Trump or his Republican avatar. In short, with his dance card already full with matters foreign and domestic, the return of Netanyahu, let alone tied to an extremist right wing coalition partner likely to roil the already tense situation with Palestinians – is something Biden surely didn’t want or need.