Israel’s longest-serving prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, looks set to storm his way back into power, with partial election results suggesting he and his allies have won a clear majority of seats in the Knesset.
Those allies include the far-right Religious Zionism/Jewish Power bloc, which appears to have more than doubled the number of seats it holds – and which could make the next government the most right-wing in Israel’s history.
The other two probable Netanyahu coalition partners are ultra-Orthodox party United Torah Judaism and religious Sephardi party Shas, which have long histories of being in government. Both have traditionally sought support for their own communities and worked to keep control of Israel’s religious establishment.
But this would be the first time that the leaders of Religious Zionist/Jewish Power could have control of government ministries.
The Religious Zionism/Jewish Power leaders draw much of their support from the settler movement – Jews who live primarily in the West Bank and believe Jews should control the occupied territories.
Having them in positions of power, like the Defense or Public Security ministries, could make Israeli-Palestinian relations even worse than they are now.
Journalist Anshel Pfeffer, who has written a biography of Netanyahu, suggested before the vote that bringing Religious Zionism/Jewish Power into government could mean expansion of the settlements, which are considered illegal under international law.
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But that may be their price for joining Netanyahu’s coalition, he said.
“Perhaps some settlements in the West Bank which were in the past abandoned by Israel, will be rebuilt, reoccupied?” Pfeffer said. “And perhaps further steps towards some type of annexation in the West Bank?”
The party leaders are settlers themselves: Itamar Ben Gvir, who’s been convicted of inciting anti-Arab racism and supporting terrorism; and Bezalel Smotrich, who once told Arab members of the Israeli parliament that they were “here by mistake because [Israel’s first prime minister David] Ben Gurion didn’t finish the job and throw you out in 1948.”
That’s when Israel became a state and when many Palestinian families either fled, or were expelled from their homes in the land that became Israel.
Ben Gvir was spotted last month drawing a gun during stone-throwing clashes in the flashpoint east Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah, telling Israeli police to shoot Arabs if they threw stones.
He opened a so-called “office” – in fact, a small tent – on a patch of scrub land in Sheikh Jarrah last year in order to assert Jewish presence in the east Jerusalem neighborhood. That’s the flashpoint area where attempted evictions of Palestinian families by Jewish groups who claim ownership of the land have become rallying cries and symbols for the Palestinian cause.
Clashes there soon after he put up the tent were among the triggers for 11 days of war between Palestinian militants in Gaza and the Israel Defense Forces last year.
A trained lawyer, Ben Gvir has argued settlers’ cases right up to Israel’s Supreme Court.
His ally Bezalel Smotrich can be just as pugnacious.
He has argued, for example, that people should make no bones about it when they hate someone.
“The most natural instinct, the most normal instinct of a normal man that loves those who love him and hates those who hate him, is to not turn the other cheek,” he said to defend a bill he co-sponsored to deny entry to Israel to supporters of Israel boycotts.
When Smotrich talks of men loving men who love them, he does not mean it in a sexual sense.
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Smotrich has described himself as a “proud homophobe” and as a young man helped organize an anti-Pride Parade event called the Beast Parade, comparing homosexuality to bestiality.
He later told the Israeli newspaper Haaretz through a spokesperson that he regretted having done that.
But as recently as September, he said LGBTQ people did not deserve any more “recognition” than people who violated traffic laws.
“I want to drive through a red light, and I want recognition,” he joked on an Israeli talk show, Haaretz reported.
Smotrich is proposing drastic changes to Israel’s legal system and code, including dropping the state’s ability to charge a public servant with fraud and breach of trust.
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Asked about Smotrich’s proposal by CNN’s Fareed Zakaria, Netanyahu demurred and said, “I wouldn’t do anything that affects me. I think my trial is unraveling as it is.”
Current projections show Netanyahu’s Likud party will be the biggest in the likely coalition, probably in command of around 32 seats, and the man Israelis call “Bibi” says that means he’ll be in the driver’s seat.
He told Zakaria last month that, even if he did partner with extremist parties, they would not set policy.
“I’ve had such partners in the past, and they didn’t change an iota of my policies. I decide the policy with my party, which is the largest party by far in the country. And we are a center-right party and a responsible party, but we are not going to adopt norms for the government that we don’t agree with,” Netanyahu said.
Netanyahu hasn’t yet made it back to the prime minister’s office, even though the signs look very good for him.
Votes are still being tallied, and the result won’t be final until each one is counted. At that point, election officials will be able to dole out seats to each party that got more than 3.25% of the national vote.
Then President Isaac Herzog will give a mandate to form a government to the politician he thinks is most likely to be able to build a coalition.
That process has been torturous in the four elections since April 2019 that preceded this one. But if the latest projections are correct, Netanyahu should have a clear path to a majority government – and the power to shift Israel significantly to the right.