Netanyahu begins coalition talks to form Israeli government

An Israeli flag flutters with the Old City of Jerusalem in the background (AFP)

Bethan McKernan

The Guardian  /  November 4, 2022

Veteran leader and his far-right allies win decisive 64 seats in 120-seat Knesset.

The former Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu has begun coalition negotiations on forming a government, after winning a decisive majority in Israel’s fifth election in four years with the help of ultra-Orthodox parties and a new alliance with the far right.

After a year in opposition, and years of political chaos triggered by his ongoing corruption trial, the veteran politician engineered a comeback in Tuesday’s vote. His majority means that the period of electoral deadlock is in all probability over for now, and Netanyahu – already the country’s longest serving prime minister – is set to stay in the job for at least the next four years. Back in office, the 73-year-old’s first priority will be seeking to get his trial dropped. He denies all charges.

Netanyahu’s conservative Likud party won 32 seats in the 120-seat Knesset, making it the largest party, and his bloc managed to win 64 seats overall, largely thanks to a doubling in support for the extremist Religious Zionists.

In Israel’s political system, coalition-building is necessary to govern, and the new administration is likely to be the most extremist in Israeli history.

News of Netanyahu’s dramatic victory was greeted by right-wing and nationalist leaders around the world: Italy’s far-right prime minister, Giorgia Meloni, and Hungary’s Viktor Orbán were among the first to offer their congratulations after the final vote count was announced on Thursday evening.

Israeli media reported on Friday that Netanyahu had instructed Yariv Levin, considered the long-time leader’s right-hand man in the Knesset, to begin talks with Religious Zionism and two ultra-Orthodox parties over portfolios.

The far-right list’s leaders, Bezalel Smotrich and the popular Itamar Ben-Gvir, both known for anti-Palestinian  rhetoric, are expected to receive important ministerial positions as horse-trading got under way on Friday. Ben-Gvir has said he wants to be public security minister, a post that would put him in charge of the police, and Smotrich has publicly said he wants to be defence minister.

The slate’s shopping list includes immunity from prosecution for Israeli soldiers, the expansion of illegal settlement building in the occupied West Bank, and reversals of LGBT-friendly laws.

Netanyahu shares little in common with his new partners other than opposition to the creation of a Palestinian state, and a mutual desire to enable parliament to override the high court, which will help get his corruption charges thrown out.

Elevating the Religious Zionists to the security cabinet will not be straightforward: the Shin Bet, Israel’s internal security service, is unlikely to be comfortable with sharing intelligence with several members of the party that they maintain files on.

Israel’s western partners, including the US, have also reportedly relayed messages to the Likud that they would only have limited contact with ministries led by Ben-Gvir and Smotrich, if they co-operated at all.

Netanyahu’s return to the world stage comes as violence in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is soaring: fighting in Nablus and Jenin since the spring means 2022 is on course to be the deadliest year for Palestinians in the occupied West Bank since 2005.

“The situation is so combustible that a single match could ignite it – and this is the moment Netanyahu has chosen to let loose the chief pyromaniacs,” the columnist Amos Harel wrote in the Israeli daily Haaretz on Friday.

The US secretary of state, Antony Blinken, expressed alarm about the deteriorating state of affairs in the West Bank in a phone call on Thursday to thank the outgoing Israeli prime minister, the centrist Yair Lapid.

Blinken voiced “his deep concern over the situation in the West Bank, including heightened tensions, violence and loss of both Israeli and Palestinian lives, and underscored the need for all parties to urgently de-escalate the situation”, Washington said in a statement.

Israel’s commentariat has already begun speculating whether Netanyahu may seek to drop his new far-right partners down the line, once they have helped overturn his corruption charges, in order to improve his standing internationally.

After burning bridges by betraying political partners in the past, however, it is currently unlikely that any other party would be willing to join a Netanyahu government.

Bethan McKernan is Jerusalem correspondent for The Guardian