Israel’s longest-serving prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, appears poised to return to power, with partial election results suggesting he and his allies won a clear majority of Knesset seats.
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 could make the next government the most right-wing in Israel’s history. .
Netanyahu’s other two likely coalition partners are the ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism party and the Sephardic religious party Shas, which have long been in government. Both have traditionally sought support for their own communities and worked to keep control of Israel’s religious establishment.
But it would be the first time that Zionist/Jewish religious power leaders could have control of government ministries.
The leaders of Religious Zionism/Jewish Power draw much of their support from the settler movement – Jews who live primarily in the West Bank and believe that Jews should control the occupied territories.
Having them in positions of power, like the Ministries of Defense or Public Security, could make Israeli-Palestinian relations even worse than they are now.
Journalist Anshel Pfeffer, who wrote a biography of Netanyahu, suggested ahead of the vote that bringing religious Zionism/Jewish power into government could mean expanding settlements, which are considered illegal under international law.
But that could 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?” said Pfeffer. “And maybe further steps towards some form of annexation in the West Bank?
The party leaders are themselves settlers: Itamar Ben Gvir, who was found guilty 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 fired you in 1948.”
It was then that Israel became a state and many Palestinian families fled or were expelled from their homes in the land that became Israel.
Ben Gvir was spotted firing a gun last month during clashes with rock-throwing in the burning neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah in East Jerusalem, telling Israeli police to shoot at Arabs who they were throwing stones.
He opened a so-called “office” — in fact, a small tent — on a brush patch in Sheikh Jarrah last year to assert the Jewish presence in the East Jerusalem neighborhood. This is the flashpoint where attempts to evict Palestinian families by Jewish groups claiming ownership of the land have become rallying cries and symbols for the Palestinian cause.
Clashes there shortly after he pitched the tent were among the triggers for the 11-day war between Palestinian militants in Gaza and the Israel Defense Forces last year.
A lawyer by training, Ben Gvir has argued settler cases all the way to Israel’s Supreme Court.
His ally Bezalel Smotrich can be just as pugnacious.
He argued, for example, that people shouldn’t hide it when they hate someone.
“The most natural instinct, the most normal instinct of a normal man who loves those who love him and hates those who hate him, is not to turn the other cheek,” he said. to defend a bill he co-sponsored to deny entry to Israel to supporters of the Israeli boycott.
When Smotrich talks about men loving men who love them, he doesn’t mean it in a sexual sense.
Smotrich has described himself as a “proud homophobe” and, as a young man, helped organize an anti-Pride Parade event called Beast Parade, comparing homosexuality to bestiality.
He later told Israeli newspaper Haaretz through a spokesperson that he regretted doing this.
But as recently as September, he said LGBTQ people deserved no more “recognition” than people who broke traffic laws.
“I want to run a red light and I want to be recognized,” he joked on an Israeli talk show, Haaretz reported.
Smotrich is proposing drastic changes to Israel’s legal system and code, including giving up the state’s ability to charge an official with fraud and breach of trust.
Netanyahu faces that charge in an ongoing corruption trial
Asked about Smotrich’s proposal by CNN’s Fareed Zakaria, Netanyahu hesitated and said, “I wouldn’t do anything that affects me. I think my trial is going as it is.
Current projections show that Netanyahu’s Likud party will be the largest of the likely coalition, likely to command around 32 seats, and the man Israelis call “Bibi” says that means he will be in charge.
He told Zakaria last month that even if he associated with extremist parties, they would not set policy.
“I’ve had such partners in the past, and they haven’t changed my policies one iota. I decide policy with my party, which is by far the largest party in the country. And we are a center-right party and a responsible party, but we are not going to adopt standards for government that we do not agree with,” Netanyahu said.
Netanyahu has yet to return to the prime minister’s office, although the signs look very good for him.
Votes are still counted and the result will not be final until everyone has been counted. At that time, election officials will be able to allocate seats to each party that obtained more than 3.25% of the national vote.
Then, President Isaac Herzog will give the mandate to form a government to the politician who he thinks is most likely to form a coalition.
This process has been tortuous 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 swing Israel significantly to the right.