Analysis: Netanyahu warned at home and abroad as he builds coalition

Ballots papers of Israeli legislative election, 2019 > Laliv g, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Talks between former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu and smaller right-wing and far-right parties have begun following this month’s Israeli election, which saw Netanyahu emerge as the likeliest next premier. However, growing warnings about the inclusion of the far-right have emerged both domestically and internationally.

What happened

  • On Sunday, former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu was formally given the presidential mandate to form Israel’s next government, less than two weeks after his right-religious bloc won a majority with 64 seats in the 120-seat Knesset.
  • This represented the eighth time that Netanyahu, who previously served as prime minister between 1996-1999 and 2009-2021, has received the legally required mandate from an Israeli president in order to form a government.
  • Prior to bestowing the mandate, President Isaac Herzog made clear the irregularity of Netanyahu’s ongoing criminal trial for corruption, which he said he “does not trivialise at all”.
  • Upon receiving the mandate, Netanyahu said that “the people made a clear decision in favour of forming a government headed by me” and vowed to form “a stable and successful government, a responsible and dedicated government” that would serve “all of Israel’s residents, without exception”.
  • “I intend to be a prime minister for everyone”, he continued, “for those who voted for me, and for those who did not vote for me. It reflects what I believe in and what guides my actions”, he claimed.
  • Despite these claims, as the Times of Israel’s David Horovitz has noted, the likeliest coalition partners available to Netanyahu – from the religious and far right of Israeli politics – “do not begin to represent Israel’s diverse constituencies” and have policies that “are advocating immensely far-reaching policies antithetical to the fundamental values, interests and needs of a vast number of Israelis”.

Lurch to the right

This week has seen formal negotiations begin between Netanyahu and other party leaders. The likely coalition partners – far right Religious Zionism and Haredi Shas and United Torah Judaism – would represent a significant lurch to the right in Israeli government, especially following the outgoing Bennett-Lapid coalition, which stretched across the political mainstream from the anti-Netanyahu right to the left and even an Israeli-Arab party.

As coalition negotiations begin, reports have emerged of the demands made by the smaller right-wing parties as the price for supporting a Netanyahu government. Religious Zionism, which includes the far-right faction Otzma Yehudit following a merger deal brokered by Netanyahu himself, has set out a “radical agenda for overhauling the entire legal and judicial system”, including reforming judicial review and the High Court’s oversight of the legislative and executive branches. Religious Zionism leader Bezalel Smotrich has claimed that he would not enter a government without a guarantee of these measures, reforms that would allow the Knesset to override High Court rulings that frequently protect freedom of assembly and protest, the rights of asylum seekers and migrants, property rights, and religion and state issues from executive overreach.

Likewise, a deal has reportedly already been struck between the prospective coalition partners to almost double state financial support for Orthodox yeshiva students at a cost of $439 million per year. Greater support for Orthodox men at yeshivas, who study religion and do not work, has been a key demand for Netanyahu’s Haredi coalition partners.

Meanwhile, both Religious Zionism and the Haredi parties have demanded reform to Israel’s Law of Return to remove the “grandchild clause”, thus restricting immigration to Israel only to people born to Jewish parents. This would mark a “profound change to a rule that has been around for more than five decades, dramatically reducing immigration to Israel and potentially sparking a bitter fight with major international Jewish groups, like the Jewish Agency”, the Times of Israel has reported.

Revolutions eat their children

Meanwhile, the most controversial of Netanyahu’s potential coalition partners – Otzma Yehudit leader Itamar Ben Gvir – was booed last week by attendants at a commemoration event for Meir Kahane, the far-right extremist rabbi and convicted terrorist whose legacy remains a source of inspiration for the Israeli far right. The booing followed comments by Ben Gvir that he would not push for legislation to expel Israel’s Arab population or to segregate Israeli society along ethnic grounds.

Warnings from outside

On the other end of the political spectrum, the Israeli security establishment has also made clear its alarm about the potential inclusion of the far right in the new government, likely in an attempt to shape the progress of the coalition negotiations.

  • Speaking at the weekend, former IDF chief of staff Gadi Eisenkot warned that appointing Smotrich as Israel’s next defence minister would be a worrying “gamble” due to his hardline views and lack of experience. “His worldview is very problematic – regarding women in the IDF, the territories, the Palestinian Authority … views that would create a chaotic environment”, Eisenkot said.
  • Former senior military and defence ministry official Amos Gilad likewise predicted a “major disaster” if Smotrich was appointed defence minister, expressing concerns about his suitability for the role given “his ideology” and history of far-right activism.
  • Smotrich is seen as being particularly ill-suited for the defence brief due to his having been arrested by intelligence services in connection to planned violent protests against Israel’s evacuation of settlers from Gaza in 2005.

The view from the opposition

Although the most obvious coalition partners for Netanyahu lie to his right, an alternative – which would dramatically shift the nature of the government – would be for a unity government alongside his major rivals, Yair Lapid – leader of centre-left Yesh Atid – and/or Benny Gantz, leader of centrist National Unity.

  • On Wednesday, all three parties – Netanyahu’s Likud, Yesh Atid and National Unity – all denied that they were in talks to form a unity government, in line with their longstanding campaign pledges.
  • Ra’am, a majority-Arab party that supported the outgoing anti-Netanyahu government, has however indicated its intention to maintain open channels of communication with a Netanyahu government, specifically around issues relevant to Israel’s Arab community.
  • Indeed, although the anti-Netanyahu so-called “change bloc” is ideologically diverse and far more unwieldy than Netanyahu’s alliance, it is thought that its component parts could find common cause against the more hardline impulses of a hardline religious-right government.

Biden baulks

Israel’s most significant ally, the United States, has also made signals to warn Netanyahu of the likely consequences of a lurch to the far right.

  • State Department spokesman Ned Price condemned Ben Gvir’s attendance at the Kahane memorial event last week, describing “celebrating the legacy of a terrorist organisation” as “abhorrent”. He added that the United States “remains concerned by the legacy” of Kahanism and “the continued use of rhetoric among violent right-wing extremists”.
  • Meanwhile, US Ambassador to Israel Tom Nides warned that any attempts by a right-religious Israeli government to annex all or part of the West Bank would be opposed by the Biden administration, pledging to “fight any attempt to do so”. Nides did not so as far as some anonymous US officials, who have suggested that the Biden administration would not deal with Ben Gvir as a minister, but did say that his own engagement would be subject to “rhetorically what they say and how they act”.

What happens next

As the coalition negotiations continue, Netanyahu faces a difficult choice – between his short-term political interest and the opinions of many Israelis and their supporters around the world.