Triumphant in this week’s election, Benjamin Netanyahu faces a new test forming a government with an ultra-nationalist party whose sudden rise has many at home and allies abroad alarmed at the potential implications for Israeli democracy.
Israel’s longest-serving Prime Minister and dominant political figure, Netanyahu, 73, is on course for a come-back a little over a year after losing an election to an unlikely coalition of right-wing, liberal and Arab parties in 2021.
This time, however, he has had to share the limelight with far-right leader, Itamar Ben-Gvir, 46, who appears likely to take a senior role in government after the Religious Zionism bloc he co-heads became the third-largest in Parliament, with 14 seats.
Whereas religious parties have featured regularly in previous rightist coalitions, Religious Zionism is on course to exercise unprecedented influence, said Assaf Shapira, Director of Political Reform at the Israel Democracy Institute.
“This party is a huge success, no religious party in Israel has ever achieved such a number,” he said.
Supported by many outside the normal base of religious voters, the rise of Ben-Gvir, a fiery provocateur who, until recently, was calling for Palestinians to be expelled, reflected widespread fears over security among many Israelis.
That was especially the case following the violence that erupted in some mixed Arab and Jewish cities last year, causing a profound shock to many residents.
“People have woken up and seen that what’s going on in the country cannot be ignored,” said 29 year-old teacher, Moria Sebbag. “Let’s hope security will be restored, that’s what’s important to me right now.”
Ben-Gvir has said he wants to become police minister, but it is still unclear what Netanyahu, on trial on corruption charges which he denies, will do once he is back or what positions Ben-Gvir and his partner Bezalel Smotrich may be offered.
With the conflict with the Palestinians surging anew and touching off Jewish-Arab tensions within Israel, Ben-Gvir on Thursday tweeted: “The time has come to impose order here. The time has come for there to be a landlord.” Fears have risen, both in Israel and abroad, that some measures talked about by the far-right – such as expelling anyone deemed “disloyal” or imposing greater constraints on the courts as Smotrich has proposed – could alter the character of Israel’s democracy, if they are ever implemented.
“I do think it’s a shift in democratic norms,” said David Makovsky, a Fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “I don’t think it means it’s not a democracy but it is a shift for a country that has always prided itself on the independence of its judiciary.”
‘Tolerance and respect for all’
Part of the balancing act facing Netanyahu will be ensuring that such concerns do not cause problems with allies, including the United States, where there has been little sign of enthusiasm for his new partner.
Asked about concern over dealing with Ben-Gvir, who was convicted in 2007 of racist incitement and support for Kach, a group on the Israeli and US terror blacklists, a State Department spokesman declined to comment on “hypotheticals”.
He said the administration hoped “all Israeli government officials will continue to share the values of an open, democratic society, including tolerance and respect for all in civil society, particularly for minority groups.”
Much may also depend on the result of next week’s congressional elections in the United States, where Republican candidates, with whom Netanyahu has long felt more comfortable, may make gains at the expense of President Joe Biden’s Democratic Party allies.
Some of Netanyahu’s long-standing priorities are expected to continue, notably his unyielding stance against Iran and his determination that Tehran should not acquire a nuclear weapon.
He is also expected to try to continue to build on the historic achievement of his last period in office, the Abraham Accords with the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, a potential precursor to a wider normalisation with the Arab world.
Yet, there is no sign of progress on the Palestinian conflict after Yair Lapid, now the caretaker Prime Minister, briefly revived talk of a two-state solution this year; Palestinian reaction to Netanyahu’s win has been almost uniformly hostile.
Contrary to his hawkish image, Netanyahu has often taken a more flexible and pragmatic approach than some of his predecessors. But there have been fears his legal problems may push him to make concessions to the far-right in return for their support in clipping the wings of the courts.
“Netanyahu now has a personal interest in limiting the power of law authorities and the Supreme Court because of his trial,” Shapira said.
Even while the campaign was under way, Smotrich proposed a set of legal changes that would cut into judicial authority and increase government control over the judiciary, while potentially helping Netanyahu in his legal battles.
Lapid joined a chorus of critics denouncing the proposed changes as an attack on the rule of law, and Netanyahu has been at pains to project a statesman-like image to allay fears of an anti-democratic revolution.
In a speech to supporters, Netanyahu said he would be avoiding “unnecessary adventures” and Ben-Gvir himself, who only a few days ago was brandishing a gun at Palestinian demonstrators in Occupied East Jerusalem, has promised that “we represent everyone.”
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.