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King Bibi is back! After one year in the Opposition, Benjamin Netanyahu, a close friend of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, has bounced back and led his right-religious bloc into a decisive victory in the 25th Knesset elections held last Tuesday. While the actual coalition process, always tricky with twists and turns, begins on Sunday, the big picture is more blurred.

In electoral terms, Likud made a marginal gain of two seats over the previous election and its main rival, Yash Atid, gained seven more seats; but the real winner is Religious Zionist Party which gained eight more seats. Overall, the Netanyahu-led right-religious bloc enjoys the support of 64 seats in the 120-member Knesset. With an eight-seat margin, the bloc is ideologically coherent and compact and comprises of Likud (32), Religious Zionist Party (14), Shas (11), and United Torah Judaism (7).

Interestingly, the right-wing but secular Likud and the three religious parties control 32 seats each. The balance is remarkable, but this will be a major drawback. The relative strength and influence of the coalition would mean partners seeking plum ministries like defence, finance, public security and education, as well as membership in the security cabinet. Since the other half of his potential partners belong to religious parties, distributing powerful but secular portfolios will be herculean for Netanyahu.

His victory was the result of the cohesion of the right and the disarray of the anti-Netanyahu forces. During the run-up to the elections, there were pressures for the Labour party and left-wing Meretz to merge or at least forge a common list. However, the failure to overcome personal differences proved costly for both parties; if the Labour party secured three seats less than in 2021, Meretz failed to enter the Knesset.

The lack of unity also proved costly for the Arab parties. At the height of their unity, when the four major Arab parties fought under one banner in September 2019, they secured 15 seats, the highest in Israel’s history. However, this time, they fought on three different lists and only two parties won, securing ten seats together. The interesting point is the fortunes of Islamist Ra’am, which created history by becoming the first Arab party to join an Israeli coalition since 1948. Though criticised by other Arab parties, Ra’am secured five seats, one more than last time. This also indicates the changing mood among the Arab citizens of Israel and their willingness to participate in mainstream politics through participation and bargaining.

Though it lost one seat, Yisrael Beiteinu is a major player, especially among the Russian immigrant community. Once known for his anti-Arab rhetoric, its leader Avigdor Lieberman has mellowed down in recent years; but his constituency is anti-Haredi. Lieberman has been a strong voice against any coalition with, let alone led by, Netanyahu. Thus, his anti-Haredi and anti-Netanyahu postures will marginalise Lieberman’s influence, at least in the short run.

Since the 1990s, the religious parties, with Shas and UTJ as the core, functioned as a bloc towards maintaining their religious agenda, especially Sabbath and kosher observance, personal laws, gender segregation at the Western Wall and supremacy of religious over secular laws. These agendas brought them to the forefront of several protests against the judiciary and its liberal and interventionist approach towards civil laws. With its strong showing, Religious Zionist Party has emboldened the religious bloc, which now has the same number of 32 seats as the Likud.

There are some glaring omissions in the right-religious coalition. The Likud will be without a Druze representation for the first time in several years. Likewise, the gender representation in the bloc is also abysmal; only eight women MKs as against 24 in the previous Bennett-Lapid government.

The real winner of the election is Religious Zionist Party and its leader Itamar Ben-Gvir. From being a fringe only a few years ago, the right-wing extremist known for his anti-Arab comments has become the key partner of Netanyahu. The Likud leader even promised to make Ben-Gvir responsible for Public Security to win over the right-wing supporters. Ben-Gvir’s first run with the law began in 1995 when he stole the car ornament of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and proudly told the media: “…we got to his car, and we’ll get to him too.” A few weeks after this public statement was captured and widely reported by the Israeli media, Rabin was assassinated by a religious student at a peace rally in Tel Aviv.

The public display of Ben-Gvir’s extremism has only increased over time. Known for his anti-Arab statements, including calls for their expulsion for being ‘disloyal’ to the State of Israel, he entered politics in 2019 and got elected in 2021. Now, he is a senior partner of Netanyahu and is angling for a security portfolio. Ben-Gvir is more vocal in expressing his views which Netanyahu can’t do due to political and diplomatic compulsions.

At the same time, the electoral success of Ben-Gvir and his inclusion in the cabinet will be a major headache for Netanyahu. Already there are warnings from the liberal segments of the American Jewish community over his possible inclusion in the government. Even those Arab countries eager to befriend Israel — either formally or informally — will be weary of Ben-Gvir getting a prominent position in the cabinet.

There are other challenges. Netanyahu will have to get someone from outside the new Knesset as defence minister. A former general, Uzi Dayan, is a possible candidate. Given the composition of his coalition, all major appointees, including the defence minister, must be vetted and accepted by the religious bloc. In recent years, several former generals and intelligence chiefs have publicly criticised Netanyahu over various security and foreign policy issues, and this will add to his problems.

The most important fallout of the new government will be Israel’s relations with the US. In the past, Netanyahu did not hesitate to rally against the US Administration if there was a policy disagreement, especially over Iran. He broke the unwritten covenant, spoke against and even campaigned against President Barack Obama, and waited for days before congratulating President-elect Joe Biden, lest he antagonises President Donald Trump. Thus, one can expect a rerun of Netanyahu-Republican bonhomie against the incumbent Biden Administration until the US presidential elections in 2024. In short, the outcomes of Tuesday’s election have only opened up interesting times for Israel.

Note:  This article was originally published in News 18 on 4 November 2022 and has been reproduced with the permission of the author. Web Link

As part of its editorial policy, the MEI@ND standardizes spelling and date formats to make the text uniformly accessible and stylistically consistent. The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views/positions of the MEI@ND. Editor, MEI@ND: P R Kumaraswamy