Opinion: What Netanyahu’s return means for Israel and the world

Editor’s note: Aaron David Miller is a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and author of “The End of Greatness: Why America Can’t Have (and Doesn’t Want) Another Great President.” Miller served as a Middle East negotiator in both Democratic and Republican administrations. The opinions expressed in this comment are his own. Read more reviews on CNN.


If Saturday Night Live great and former actor Bill Murray hadn’t been hired as a technical advisor to Israel’s Central Election Commission, he surely would have been. Based on pre-election polls, it looked like Israel was headed for another Groundhog Day-style election for the fifth time in four years.

But this election (final figures won’t be available until the end of the week) seems to have achieved what the previous four could not: a majority for Benjamin (Bibi) Netanyahu and his allies and the likely creation of Israel’s most right-wing government. the history

In fact, the biggest star of the new political firmament was not Netanyahu, but the extremist Itamar Ben Gvir, whose Religious Zionism bloc is the third largest in the Knesset. Here are four things you should know about this election and what may lie ahead.

Like its four predecessors, this election had a central flaw, if not an organizing principle. Are you for or against Netanyahu’s return? Love it or loathe it, Netanyahu, at 73, has been the longest-serving prime minister in Israeli history.

Despite being under indictment and convicted of bribery, fraud and breach of trust, Netanyahu is now the most important politician on the Israeli scene and is on the verge of perhaps his greatest victory, returning to the prime ministership with a majority.

For Netanyahu this election was truly existential. If he did not get a majority in the government – legislation to delay or even cancel the trial is likely – he could face the consequences of a guilty verdict or a plea deal that would distance him from politics.

But Netanyahu’s victory was not just about the “all about me” title. It reflects and consolidates trends that have been in evidence for a long time. Likud is the most stable and permanent political party in the Israeli system. Netanyahu is its master and Israel is now a nation shaped by the right wing – and perhaps its most extreme elements – more than at any time in its history.

Benjamin Netanyahu, with his wife Sara, addresses supporters at his campaign headquarters in Jerusalem on November 2, 2022.

Israel’s iconic left-wing and center-left dominant Labor party, which was a political force in the first three decades of independence, has been reduced to a shadow of its former self with only a handful of Knesset seats.

And while interim Prime Minister Yair Lapid’s center-left and right-wing bloc made a respectable showing – perhaps even garnering more votes – the breakdown of the left and Arab vote gave the advantage to the more cohesive and disciplined Netanyahu bloc.

In fact, without over-dramatizing the issues, Netanyahu’s victory now includes the cult of personalities that will strengthen the forces of radical nationalism – Netanyahu and Ben Gvir -; populism and us versus them mentality dividing and polarizing the country.

And if the Netanyahu government succeeds in reducing the powers of Israel’s Supreme Court, establishing control over judicial appointments, deepening the hold of Jewish law on public life, and reversing the court’s decision to overturn legislation aimed at legalizing settlements in the West Bank, Israel will be a democracy. to be fundamentally weakened, strengthening the forces of liberalism, ethnocentrism and disrespect for the law.

Israel has been drifting to the right for years. In fact, according to the analyst Tamar Hermann of the Israel Democracy Institute, a full 60% of the electorate in Israel is right-wing; 12-14% identify as left-wing and the rest are in the so-called center.

But while polls predicted religious Zionism – a bloc of three extreme parties that include racist, Jewish supremacist, anti-Arab and homophobic views – would do well in the election, the extent of its success was surprising.

Religious Zionism doubled its numbers from the 2021 election and Gvir, the bloc’s shining star, attracted new voters, raising national turnout by around 6%, according to polls.

It will also be a stunning moment for Netanyahu, who forged this ill-fated alliance in an effort to maximize his chances of securing more than 60 seats to form a government. It is almost a coincidence that one of the parties in this bloc led by Bezalel Smotrich has come up with a plan to reform (read emasculate) the judicial system and exonerate Netanyahu from prosecution.

The new prime minister is now beholden to these extremists and the two ultra-orthodox parties who will have a long list of demands. In fact, Likud won 31 seats, while the far-right and ultras have as many or more, effectively making it a minority within its government.

More than that, Netanyahu now has a running mate in Ben Gvi, 46, who is just beginning his rise in Israeli politics. It should surprise no one if Netanyahu tries to reach out to centrist Benny Gantz and Gideon Saar to join his coalition to “save the nation” in an effort to check Ben Gvir or at least moderate his extremist demands.

One could be forgiven for thinking that this narrow right-wing government might not last. But there may be more that binds this coalition than divides it. Both Orthodox parties have been out of power and are desperate for support for their schools and religious institutions.

The religious Zionist bloc dominated by Ben Gvir sees participation in the government as a way to legitimize its movement, broaden its base and its political horizons. He began his election victory speech by saying, “I’m not prime minister yet.” And Netanyahu will surely try to keep this coalition together to secure a get-out-of-jail-free ticket through legislation.

How will this government actually act? It’s safe to say that as Israel’s 75th anniversary approaches next year, it will bring the country no closer to meeting the domestic and foreign policy challenges it faces and will almost certainly worsen. At home, Israel will be increasingly polarized, with an independent judiciary and the rule of law under serious threat.

Netanyahu has proven himself to be inherently risk-averse when it comes to dealing in matters of war and peace. And he will try to keep Ben Gvir away from affecting Israel’s national security; and backed down on his demands to dissolve the Palestinian Authority, annex the West Bank and expel the Palestinians.

But there will be more settlement and support for the settlers; Greater effort to consolidate control of Jerusalem; Relations with Israel’s Arab citizens will worsen with fewer resources for their community and if there is a serious conflict with Palestinians in the West Bank or Jerusalem, the odds of a conflict between Israeli Jews and Arabs will increase.

There will be some restrictions on the behavior of the government. Netanyahu is certainly not interested in a confrontation with Hamas or Hezbollah. He wants to preserve the recent maritime border agreement with Lebanon, maintain the Abraham accords with the US and Bahrain, and lay the foundations for relations with Saudi Arabia.

President Joe Biden and Netanyahu will not seek confrontation. The White House has already released the following statement. “We look forward to continuing to work with the Israeli government on our shared interests and values.” Both are too busy with other matters to want such a troublesome distraction.

But even without Ben Gvir’s connection to extremism, Netanyahu’s relations with Biden would have been difficult, as they would have clashed over settlements, the treatment of Palestinians in the West Bank and the construction of Jerusalem.

On Iran, Netanyahu’s rhetoric will intensify. And should the Biden Administration be able to revive the Iran nuclear deal, Netanyahu will resume his former campaign in 2015 to make common cause with Republican opposition.

Indeed, Netanyahu, like Saudi Prince Mohammed bin Salman, would be much more comfortable with the return of Donald Trump or his Republican avatar. In short, with his dance card already full of foreign and domestic issues, Netanyahu’s return, much less tied to a member of the far-right coalition, is to complicate an already tense situation with the Palestinians, something Biden surely neither wanted nor needed. .