Israel elections: Far-right surges to become third-largest party as Netanyahu set for comeback

Lubna Masarwa

Middle East Eye  /  November 1, 2022

Former prime minister tells Likud supporters at his party’s election headquarters that ‘we are on the brink of a very big victory’

Israeli far-right politician Itamar Ben-Gvir’s Religious Zionism party had gained 14 seats by Wednesday morning with 80 percent of the votes counted following Tuesday’s election, likely giving Benjamin Netanyahu’s right-wing bloc a majority in parliament.

Results so far showed the former prime minister, who is on trial for corruption he denies, leading a bloc of four parties taking more than 60 of the Knesset’s 120 seats.

Based on the current count, Netanyahu’s bloc would pick up 65 seats, though this number will change as more ballots are processed. Exit polls have predicted 61-62 seats for Netanyahu’s bloc.

“We have won a huge vote of confidence from the people of Israel,” a smiling Netanyahu told cheering supporters at his Likud party election headquarters. “We are on the brink of a very big victory.”

During last year’s election cycle, Netanyahu said Ben-Gvir – who used to keep a picture of Baruch Goldstein, who massacred 29 Palestinians in a mosque in 1994, in his home – was not fit to be a minister.

However, as Ben-Gvir’s popularity has grown, Netanyahu has changed tack, and conceded that he could serve in any potential cabinet. 

Bezalel Smotrich, a leader of Religious Zionism, tweeted that the party had made history and “this is a victory for the religious-Zionist camp”.

Incumbent Prime Minister Yair Lapid has yet to concede and his party has urged patience.

The Palestinian nationalist Balad party has also inched closer to reaching the minimum vote threshold, with one poll putting the party within 0.25 percent of getting over the line.

Israelis began voting for the fifth time in less than four years on Tuesday.

The final turnout in the elections was 71.3 percent, the highest since 2015, according to the Central Election Committee.

Voting among Palestinian citizens of Israel was the lowest in the past 20 years, United Arab List leader Mansour Abbas said, just minutes before polls closed.

Earlier on Tuesday, the atmosphere on the streets of Jerusalem was decidedly flat, with fewer banners and activists than in the recent rounds of polls.

Though Israeli politics in recent years has long been divided between Netanyahu’s alliance of right-wing and ultra-orthodox parties and all those who want to see the back of him, seasoned political analyst Meron Rapoport believes the Likud leader is far from the most significant aspect of this election.

“He is a marginal figure in the story today,” Rapoport told Middle East Eye on Tuesday.

“Instead, driving Israeli politics is Religious Zionism, led by Ben-Gvir and Smotrich, open racists who have floated the idea of stripping the citizenship of Palestinian citizens of Israel, among other destructive policies.

“This is a party that has influenced Likud, which has adopted its language to a large extent, and it is also a party that is thinking of eliminating democracy at its base.

“Ben-Gvir talks about a law that would see anyone who opposes the regime, whether Arab [Palestinian] or Jewish, deported,” Rapoport said.

Rapoport noted that Palestinians who remained in Israel after 1948 were given citizenship by David Ben-Gurion, a status that has always remained sacrosanct. Yet likely future ministers are floating the idea of taking that away.

“Smotrich talks about bringing the army into Lod and Acre/Akka,” he added, referring to two cities with large Palestinian populations. “There is a potential here that cannot be underestimated, and cannot be ignored.”

Voter concerns

Security and surging prices had topped the list of voter concerns in a campaign triggered by outgoing Lapid’s decision to seek an early election, following defections from his ruling coalition.

Lapid, a former TV anchor, had urged the electorate on Tuesday to cast their ballot.

“Go and vote today for the future of our children, for the future of our country. Vote well!” he said at a Tel Aviv polling station.

Lapid was the architect of the last coalition, which included the United Arab List party, known as Ra’am in its Hebrew acronym, as well as others from the right and left.

That unlikely alliance was made possible after Ra’am’s leader, Abbas, pulled his party from the Joint List, a coalition of parties representing Palestinian citizens of Israel, paving the way for him to join the government.

Recent months have seen further divisions within the Palestinian parties, which are running on three separate lists in a move likely to weaken the minority’s representation in parliament.

That spelt bad news for the Israeli left, who needed strong Palestinian representation to stop Netanyahu’s bloc from seizing power. 

Ayman Odeh, a leader of the Hadash-Ta’al list, told a radio station: “We are very worried, because the turnout for voting among the Ben-Gvir group, the settlers and the right is very high, and the voting among the Arabs [Palestinians]  is still low.”

“The Arabs [Palestinians] make up 16 percent of the voters and we can determine the shape of the political map in Israel if we succeed in raising the voting percentage,” he said.

Dema Habiballah, a 30-year-old accountant belonging to Israel’s Palestinian community, is not voting.

“I voted only once in my life when I was 18. But when I became more politically aware I decided to boycott,” she told MEE.

“We are living under an occupation that can’t be solved by elections. Nothing can fix our situation, I can’t separate our case from the occupation of the West Bank, we are the same people.”

The campaign took place against a backdrop of months of Israeli raids against Palestinians in the occupied West Bank.

Israeli police had urged settlers and citizens to carry guns on election day, as the army deployed additional troops into the West Bank, fearing potential attacks, public broadcaster Kan reported.

Police on Sunday told licensed and well-trained gun-owners to keep their weapons on them on Tuesday and in the near future. 

Habiballah pointed to the poor progress Israel has made to rid Palestinian-majority towns and cities of weapons and crime, saying it showed the country’s democratically elected officials have no interest in helping Palestinian citizens, who make up 20 percent of Israel’s population.

“The county that has the capacity to know where a cat [is] coming from, can’t pick up weapons among Arab [Palestinian] towns and villages. They only want us there to use us as political power without giving us true authority or anything else,” she said.

Meanwhile, the five million Palestinians living under Israeli occupation in the West Bank and Gaza Strip have no say in the future direction of a government that has effective control over them.

US fears

If Netanyahu and his allies form a working coalition, the extremist views of his allies are likely to gain even more attention in the international arena. 

According to Walla, an Israeli website, Israeli President Yitzhak Herzog during a visit to the US last week was forced to allay fears put to him by officials in the Biden administration that members of far-right parties could be appointed to any new coalition government.

Sunday’s report said Washington fears that if leaders of the far-right parties receive senior positions, it could damage relations between the US and Israel.

UAE Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed is reported to have warned Netanyahu in private that any cooperation with extreme right-wing parties could damage nascent relations between the countries.

Israel has faced several election cycles since 2019, the year Netanyahu, now 73, was charged with bribery, fraud and breach of trust in three cases that he describes as a “rigged” political witch-hunt meant to keep him out of office.

According to the Israeli Central Elections Committee, 209,000 first-time voters will participate in the coming election who did not vote in March 2021, the last time elections were held.

Many of those voting for the first time, the majority of whom are Jewish, were expected to favour right and far-right parties over the left.

Lubna Masarwa is a journalist and Middle East Eye’s Palestine and Israel bureau chief, based in Jerusalem