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Netanyahu poised to win Israeli elections and return to power within weeks


JERUSALEM — Israeli opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu was set to seal victory in Israel’s general election on Thursday, putting him on track to return as prime minister to lead one of Israel’s most right-wing governments. the history of Israel.

Vote counting was due to end Thursday afternoon, and Mr Netanyahu’s right-wing bloc is all but guaranteed a clear victory, ensuring that Israel, after five elections in less than four years, will have a cohesive government with a stable majority for the first time since 2019.

The far-right’s strong showing was linked to fears among right-wing Jews about perceived threats to Israel’s Jewish identity and personal safety. A wave of inter-ethnic riots in May 2021 shook their sense of security, a feeling that was deepened months later by the inclusion – for the first time in Israel’s history – of an Arab party in the coalition government.

Both of these concerns pushed some right-wing Israelis toward more extreme parties in the last election.

Although the coalition led by Mr. Netanyahu would provide a stable government, it would nonetheless disrupt Israel’s constitutional framework and social fabric.

It would also test some of Israel’s diplomatic relations, including with the United States and Persian Gulf states with which Israel has recently formed alliances.

Mr. Netanyahu himself oversaw the creation of these alliances during his last term. But the priorities of its new coalition allies risk escalating tensions with the Palestinians, which could embarrass Israel’s Arab and American partners.

These tensions underscore the complexity of Mr. Netanyahu’s return: as Israel’s longest-serving prime minister, he is a household name who has defined contemporary Israeli society perhaps more than any other politician. But its decision to ally itself with the far right, unhindered by any centrist or left-wing force, takes Israel into the unknown.

Netanyahu’s far-right allies want to weaken and reform Israel’s judiciary, give politicians more control over judicial appointments and loosen the Supreme Court’s control over the parliamentary process. These allies could make these policies a condition of joining his coalition.

They also want to end Palestinian autonomy in parts of the occupied West Bank and have a history of clashing with the Palestinian minority in Israel itself, a record that raises fears the new government could exacerbate Jewish-Arab tensions. in Israel and dampen any hope of an end to the occupation.

Mr Netanyahu may not officially return to power until the second half of November. State protocols mean that Israeli President Isaac Herzog has until November 16 to invite Mr. Netanyahu to form a government, and Mr. Netanyahu’s own coalition negotiations could take even longer.

Foreign policy experts predict that Netanyahu, once back in power, will be forced to walk a delicate path between hard-line allies appeasing at home while avoiding confrontations with international partners who support a two-state solution to the conflict. Israeli-Palestinian.

The State Department has previously hinted that the Biden administration has reservations about Mr Netanyahu’s likely coalition partners.

“We hope that all Israeli government officials will continue to share the values ​​of an open and democratic society, including tolerance and respect for all in civil society, especially minority groups,” the spokesperson said. of the department, Ned Price, asked about the election. result on Wednesday.

Aaron David Miller, a former senior State Department official, said Mr Biden and Mr Netanyahu would try to avoid conflict because they have other more pressing priorities.

But, Mr. Miller said, “At a minimum, Biden and Netanyahu are likely to piss each other off. ”

“The unprecedented character of the new Israeli government, the most right-wing in Israel’s history, will – to say the least – accentuate the differences,” he added.

Mr. Netanyahu was the main architect of the historic diplomatic relations that Israel forged in 2020 with Bahrain, Morocco and the United Arab Emirates, and his re-election is not expected to upend these new relations, even if it presents them with new challenges.

Although none of Israel’s new partners have given up on the Palestinian cause, analysts say the Persian Gulf leaders now see their own national interests as a greater immediate priority.

“From the perspective of any of the Gulf states, normalization is tied to their long-term strategic plans and has little to do with day-to-day Israeli politics,” said Elham Fakhro, researcher at the Center for Gulf Studies at the University of Exeter in England. “As American presidents come and go, they see any relationship with Israel as transcending short-term political dynamics,” she added.

Just as he backed the Oslo Accords in the 1990s, after criticizing them in opposition, Netanyahu is also expected to stick to a recent maritime deal with Lebanon that he condemned during his negotiation .

But his election could make it more difficult to formalize ties between Israel and the most influential Arab country, Saudi Arabia. The Saudi government has recently made small diplomatic gestures towards Israel, such as allowing Israeli planes to fly over its airspace, but said it would not agree to full diplomatic relations until a Palestinian state is established.

“There is unlikely to be a pull on Saudi-Israeli diplomatic relations,” Dr Fakhro said. In return for normalizing ties, she added, Saudi Arabia “would expect something major in return. Netanyahu’s approach – by definition – rejects the possibility of major concessions.

In Israel, opponents of Mr. Netanyahu fear that his return will strengthen the most extreme figures in his coalition. One of them, Bezalel Smotrich, wants to be defense minister; another, Itamar Ben-Gvir, wants to oversee the police.

Until 2020, Mr. Ben-Gvir hung a portrait in his home of an Israeli settler who shot dead 29 Palestinians in a West Bank mosque in 1994. As a teenager, Mr. Ben-Gvir was barred from military service because he was considered too extreme. He also describes a hard-line rabbi who wanted to strip Arab Israelis of their citizenship as his “hero.”

Mr Netanyahu tried to allay fears over his return this week, promising in a speech on Wednesday morning that he would lead “a national government that will take care of everyone”.

He also pledged to heal divisions within Israeli society, adding that the country “respects all of its citizens.”

But many members of Israel’s Palestinian minority, which makes up about a fifth of the population, remained skeptical and scared.

“These are difficult days,” said Aida Touma-Suleiman, a Palestinian lawmaker in Israel’s parliament. “This is not the ordinary, classic law that we know. It’s a change – in which a racist and violent right threatens to turn into fascism.

Myra Noveck and Hiba Yazbek contributed reporting from Jerusalem, and Gabby Sobelman from Rehovot, Israel.

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