Religious Zionism is 'Bibi's' only option to achieve a majority in the Knesset and govern.
Benjamin Netanyahu left the Prime Minister's office in June 2021 for the first time in 12 years. The longest-serving politician in Israel's history had to don the suit of opposition leader after seeing eight heterogeneous formations form an unprecedented coalition to oust him from power. It was not the first time he had served in this capacity: between 2005 and 2009 he was the spearhead against the government of his former partner, Ehud Olmert. Nor was it by any means the first time that he had left office - Labour leader Ehud Barak forced his momentary retirement from politics after defeating him in the 1999 elections.
But the elections of 1 November, his fifth in less than four years, gave this political animal of seven lives another chance. His party, the conservative Likud, won 32 seats in the Knesset (parliament) with more than 23% of the vote. It was the most voted list ahead of the centrist Yesh Atid (There is a Future), the platform of outgoing Prime Minister Yair Lapid, figures that put him in a privileged position to lead the next cabinet. The mandate from the ballot box consummated the return of King 'Bibi', the family nickname by which he is known to supporters and detractors alike.
Netanyahu, however, was not the main winner of these elections. The spotlight is on Religious Zionism, a radical right-wing alliance comprising the Religious Zionism and Otzma Yehudit (Jewish Power) parties, as well as Noam, an openly homophobic fringe formation. Ultra-Orthodox, populist and, according to its critics, Jewish supremacist, the list became the third parliamentary force. It will be the key to forming a government. In barely a year it has gone from obtaining 225,000 votes to almost double that, some 516,000, bringing together eight more seats than in March 2021. Their meteoric rise earned them 14 seats in the Knesset for the bloc headed by 'Bibi', which totals 64 of the 120 seats in Parliament, three above the magic figure of 61 that marks the majority.
Polls predicted a tight race between Netanyahu and Lapid. The most likely scenario was for yet another repeat election, but the message from the polls pointed in a different direction. The more than 4.5 million voters underlined the majority backing for the right-wing bloc. With a turnout of over 70%, the highest since 2015, the Israeli electorate put all the ballots in Netanyahu's hands to govern. As a result, President Isaac Herzog began the usual round of consultations with the various political leaders on Wednesday to decide which of them he will appoint to form the next cabinet. The head of state expects to conclude the process this Friday and "commission the formation of the government on Sunday".
Herzog, who was defeated in the 2015 elections precisely at the hands of Netanyahu, had hours earlier promoted the formation of a unity government that would integrate the lists of the former Defence Minister, Benny Gantz, and the outgoing Prime Minister, Yair Lapid, in order to displace the radical right. In public, both leaders rejected the proposal outright, and the president's office was quick to deny the reports. "It is no secret that I have always believed and continue to believe in unity, but I have not acted and do not act to push for the formation of one government or another," the president said. Herzog added that he would leave the matter "in the hands of the political system".
The only possible option is to incorporate Religious Zionism into a Council of Ministers in which the ultra-Orthodox Shas and United Torah Judaism formations, regular members of Likud governments, will also be present. Netanyahu is aware of this and has therefore begun informal rounds of dialogue with the heads of the radical coalition's list, Bezalel Smotrich and Itamar Ben Gvir. Not so with the leader of Noam, whom he later summoned alone after seeing his support for the bloc threatened. In November or December, 'Bibi' will form a government, "the rest is background noise", reports journalist Amit Segal, citing sources present at the negotiations.
This being the case, Netanyahu will have to tread carefully. For the first time, his party will not occupy the centre of the coalition. "If in previous governments Netanyahu always brought in a centrist party to broaden the coalition and prevented the full implementation of right-wing policies, this time the prime minister-designate is receiving a full right-wing coalition," Avitan Cohen, the political correspondent of the Globe, told Atalayar Shirit.
In his five previous governments, the Likud leader sought to partner with moderate profiles to balance the scales. He did so in 2009, when he could have governed comfortably hand in hand with the ultra-Orthodox formations, but decided to welcome Barak into his second cabinet. He also did so in the third cabinet, accommodating Lapid's centrist Yesh Atid and Tzipi Livni's liberal Hathuna, to whom he gave the Finance and Foreign Affairs portfolios, respectively. In the fourth, he turned to the socio-liberals of Kulanu. And in the fifth and last, he signed a Prime Ministerial rotation agreement with the centrist Benny Gantz.
The ultra-Orthodox never left the equation, but this time Netanyahu will have to rely on new fellow travellers who will push Likud to the left wing of the government. 'Bibi' will have to cede important portfolios to Religious Zionist cadres given their hefty contribution to the majority, all without irritating members of his own party. The right-hand man of Likud's leader-for-life Yair Levin is quietly conducting talks with the numbers one and two on the radical right's joint list. Netanyahu wants to keep the key ministries of Defence, Foreign affairs and Finance, but his partners are looking further afield. They not only want cabinet space, they want to set policy.
Smotrich and Ben Gvir are also wary of 'Bibi's' siren songs. In the past, the veteran Likud leader has taken advantage of his government partners and brought them down with his skilful power manoeuvres. Gantz and Lapid were the most recent victims. For this reason, Smotrich and Ben Gvir are demanding written commitments before certifying their membership. They will not have it easy: "It should not be assumed at all that the government will be under the control of Ben Gvir and Smotrich, who are newcomers," writes analyst Elliott Abrams in the Council of Foreign Relations. "Moreover, although they came together to run in this election, they are in fact from different parties and could soon be rivals. If Netanyahu finds it useful for this to happen, he has the wiles to encourage it."
In the footsteps of Religious Zionism
What exactly does Religious Zionism stand for and why does it instil such fear in part of Israeli society? The radical right-wing coalition contested the elections united on three key lines of action: the annexation of West Bank settlements, the expulsion of asylum seekers and 'irregular' migrants, and the reform of the judiciary. They also stand out for their ultra-nationalist positions and their warmongering and intolerant rhetoric against the LGBT community, although the heads of the list have tried to moderate their profile in recent years.
Analyst David E. Rosenberg writes in Foreign Policy that Religious Zionism's roots "lie in an even more extreme politics than it is selling to voters today". "As the alliance has gained strength, it has tried to iron out its rougher edges, but it has never fully renounced them," he notes. Neri Zilber, a journalist and adjunct fellow at the Tel Aviv-based Washington Institute, adds in a telephone conversation with Atalayar that "in general terms, they want to strengthen Israel's Jewish character", a plan that involves stripping certain rights from a large section of Israeli society.
Behind the controversial acronym is the Smotrich-Ben Gvir tandem. The former, head of the list, leads the Religious Zionism formation; the latter, his number two in the November 1 elections, heads the Jewish Power party. They come from different political traditions which, at present, converge in almost all their demands. But they are far from the same; there are nuances and differences that Netanyahu can use to appease them. Zilber believes that "it will be difficult", and anticipates that "there will be tensions within the government".
Bezalel Smotrich is the son of an Orthodox rabbi who grew up in a settlement on the Golan Heights. A certified lawyer despite not having completed his studies, he decided to volunteer for the Israel Defence Forces (IDF) at the age of 28, but did so as a jobnik, a pejorative term used in Israel to describe enlistees who end up doing office work in the army. After that experience he decided to take the leap into activism and from there into the political arena.
Smotrich is an old acquaintance of 'Bibi'. He held the transport portfolio for a few months during his fourth term as prime minister, but there was a major clash between the two when the then minister harshly criticised Netanyahu, whom he described as a "weak leader" at the launch of the right-wing Yamina coalition, a direct rival of Likud at the polls. He was his boss, for which he had to apologise in order to stay in office. That episode seems to have been forgotten, although this election campaign has brought to light disagreements between the two sides.
Among his main demands is to reform the judiciary, which he accuses of interfering in Knesset decisions "in favour of the left and Arab minorities". It should be noted that Israel does not have a written constitution limiting the judiciary. Instead, there are certain laws and fundamental rights that enjoy a semi-constitutional status. The judges of the Supreme Court, the highest judiciary in the country, elect themselves directly and indirectly, and the parliamentary immunity of MPs was abolished.
"Religious Zionism says it wants to "reform" the judicial system, stripping the Supreme Court of its prerogatives, among other things, because it does not want the judiciary to limit its movements as it has been doing so far," Zilber explains. Rosenberg also argues in his analysis that the real interest of the formation is to "protect Jewish extremists before the law". But their ambitions do not stop there: they also want to remove the offence of breach of trust from the criminal code, a demand that has been repeated on both sides of the political spectrum as not being sufficiently precise.
The radical right coalition states the following in its election manifesto: "The crime of breach of trust has been abstracted to mean almost anything that the courts do not approve of and provides the legal basis for charging public officials for a range of behaviour that does not really constitute a breach of trust at all". Netanyahu himself has been charged with breach of trust in one of his many run-ins with the courts. He could get out of it if he finally approves its removal from the criminal code.
Itamar Ben Gvir, the real threat
It is the number two on the Religious Zionism list, Itamar Ben Gvir, who raises the most suspicions. A lawyer by profession, he was born into a secular family of Iraqi Jewish parents in 1976. The First Intifada (1987-1993) radicalised the young man, who soon found a place in extreme right-wing circles close to the theses of Meir Kahane, an American rabbi whose racist discourse led to his expulsion from the political front line in 1988 and his assassination two years later. His links with Kahanism, for which he served as youth coordinator, exempted him from compulsory military service.
It is known that for years he hung in his living room the photograph of Baruch Goldstein, the Kah party member who was at the centre of the 1994 Hebron massacre. Goldstein murdered 29 Muslims praying at the Tomb of the Patriarchs, a holy place for both Jews and Muslims. Ben Gvir did not remove his portrait until 2020. The now leader of the radical Jewish Power was also one of the promoters of the climate of hostility that led to the assassination of former Labour Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin by another extremist, Yigal Amir, after the signing of the Oslo Accords.
"I listen to all those who bring up the issues of the emblem on Yitzhak Rabin's car 27 years ago! and the Baruch Goldstein poster. But let me remind you of the long road I have travelled since then and how I have changed: I have matured, I have moderated and I have come to understand that life is complex," Ben Gvir wrote in an opinion column published Monday in Israel's most widely read daily, Israel Hayom. "My brothers on the left, give me a chance. If you let us come closer, if you listen to what we have to say, you will discover that we are all brothers. You will find that we agree on 90% of the issues," he added.
But his imminent landing in the cabinet strikes fear into the heart of even President Herzog. At a meeting on Wednesday between the head of state and Likud leaders, which was broadcast online in the interests of transparency, he unwittingly pronounced into an open microphone that "the whole world" is concerned about the role of government he will play. Netanyahu opened the door for him and he aspires to the Ministry of Public Security, in charge of the police. Ben Gvir has a criminal record. He has been reported more than 50 times and has received eight convictions for rioting, vandalism, incitement to racism and supporting a terrorist organisation.
Rise of the radical right
"The Religious Zionist party achieved an impressive result in reaction to the outgoing government. Its voters also come from Israel's peripheral cities, where they have traditionally voted Likud in demand for sharper right-wing policies. But even in the established areas, such as the kibbutzim [agricultural communes], where they used to vote Labour and Defence Minister [Benny] Gantz's party, they switched to Religious Zionism," explains Avitan Cohen. "The reason for the increase in the vote for Ben Gvir and Smotrich in areas identified with the centre and the political left in Israel is the agricultural terrorism damaging residents' fields and the lack of ability of the outgoing government to respond to the phenomenon."
"There are three reasons for the rise of Religious Zionism. The first and most important is Netanyahu himself. The former Prime Minister promoted the union of the three lists to his right [Religious Zionism, Jewish Power and Neom] because they would get more votes by competing in coalition. Netanyahu also legitimised his ideas in the eyes of public opinion. The second is society's adverse reaction to the Bennett-Lapid government. The Israeli right-wing launched a very aggressive campaign against them and labelled them illegitimate. The third is the context of confrontation between Israelis and Palestinians that erupted in May 2021. There were very high levels of violence inside the country and the Israeli population's security was endangered. In 'Bibi' they saw a strong man," says Zilber.
Rosenberg highlights the dynamic of normalisation or acceptance in public debate of his ideas: "Political discourse has become more crude and less compromised, partly due to Netanyahu's strategy of delegitimising the centre and the left, and partly due to the rise of social media and the declining power of the media". This last point, however, is where much of the success lies. Ben Gvir has more than 100 hours of airtime in the whole of 2021, surpassing the figures for all other politicians, according to data from the NGO Darkenu. In fact, the day before the elections he was interviewed up to four times by a single TV channel.
It also seems to have been influenced by the feeling of orphanhood provoked in a large part of the conservative electorate by the formation of a government in June 2021 between the candidate of the right-wing Yamina, the settler leader Naftali Bennett, who would later become Prime Minister, and the Arab Islamist Ra'am party of Mansour Abbas. Netanyahu tried something similar this time, but Smotrich shut him down, which attracted many new Religious Zionist voters. Asked about the alleged absorption of votes from the radical right into Likud, Zilber points out that 'the right-wing vote is very fluid. What we have seen is that Likud has not lost power.
Will Israel achieve the desired stability after four elections in less than four years? "No, it's an illusion," Zilber replies resignedly. "The measures they take will generate a strong reaction from the half of the population that did not vote for them". Avitan Cohen believes that Netanyahu "will work to maintain the status quo on the one hand, but will promote governance programmes and reform the judicial system on the other". "Despite the religious elements in the government, it is likely that the issues of global criticism will be left off the reform table of the government to be established".
The strained relations with the Biden administration in the US, which found in Lapid a constructive ally for its Middle East plans, remain in the balance. Another aspect to keep in mind will be the evolution of the Palestinian cause: will the foundations of the Abraham Accords be undermined if members of Religious Zionism add fuel to the fire and reignite the dispute, will the maritime delimitation agreement with Lebanon remain in place, and will the regional confrontation with Iran intensify beyond its denial of the failed reissue of the nuclear deal? Only time and 'Bibi's' skill will clear up the doubts.