Netanyahu poised to lead most rightwing government in Israeli history

Benjamin Netanyahu (Kobi Gideon)

Jonathan Ofir

Mondoweiss  / September 19, 2022

Now that the party lists are set, Israel appears ready to elect its most extreme right-wing government ever.

September 15 was a deadline for the submission of parties for the Israeli elections, set for November 1. At this point it appears likely that Israel will be seeing one of its most extreme right-wing governments in history.

Benjamin Netanyahu has reemerged as a beacon of stability for the right, and if he leads Israel’s next government he will likely bring a considerable number of representatives from the Kahanist Jewish Power party with him. Although ironically, Netanyahu is also helping coalesce what is left of the “Left” as their opposition to him is the only thing holding them together. If he wasn’t running, the next Israeli government would probably swing even further to the right.

The Palestinian split

There were several last-minute dramas as the party lists were finalized, the biggest probably being the split that occurred in what used to be the Joint List — the conglomerate of several Palestinian-representative parties. 

For a while, Balad, which stands for a democratic secular state, was speaking of running separately from Hadash and Ta’al. The latter two are more poised to recommend a candidate like current Prime Minister Yair Lapid (thus lending their support to a potential anti-Netanyahu bloc), and Balad is more opposed to it. Nonetheless, they had reportedly reached an agreement accommodating all concerns — right when Hadash and Ta’al suddenly called it off and decided to go without Balad. 

In the speech declaring the new merger Hadash-Ta’al, leader Ayman Odeh suggested that their party would get 6 seats, enough to make them kingmakers and bring the anti-Netanyahu bloc out of the roughly 55-seat situation (a 61-seat majority is needed in the 120-seat parliament). Alas, all four polls since that decision point to exactly 4 seats for Hadash-Ta’al — putting into question whether they will clear the electoral threshold (4 seats, 3.25%). Odeh seemed to be hinging his optimistic projection on the precedent of the April 2019 elections, where such a merger ran and got 6 seats. 

But the political landscape has shifted, and Israel’s forever-elections carry a toll on the stamina of voters.  All of those polls point to Balad not even making it beyond the electoral threshold (the highest they poll is 1.5%). When the Joint List ran together as four parties in the September 2019 elections, they got 13 seats and became the third biggest party after Blue-White and Likud. 

Remember that Ra’am, the conservative Islamist party, split from the other three in the 2021 elections, and joined the “government of change” then led by Naftali Bennett, Israel’s historically most right-wing premier. It was, quite predictably, a government of apartheid status quo. 

These splits among the Palestinian-representative parties seem to have a very negative effect for projected voter turnout, and recent polls suggest that perhaps only about one out of three Palestinian citizens of Israel will turn up for voting in this situation.  

It is now possible, that all the Palestinian-representative parties running, including Ra’am, will simply not clear the electoral threshold, and that there will simply be no united Palestinian representation in the Israeli parliament. 

The Zionist spirit

Meanwhile, on the Zionist far-right, Ayelet Shaked was attempting to save what was left of the Yamina (Rightwards) party, which was her ticket for governing with Naftali Bennett as premier. Bennett will not be running after the failure of the recent one-year government, and Shaked was attempting to forge alignments which would maintain her political relevance. First she made an alliance with Yoaz Hendel (the Minister of Communications) at the end of July, forming what they called The Zionist Spirit. That 1.5-month venture ended five days before the mid-September deadline, where they split amidst disagreements about whether to support Netanyahu. Shaked is open for it, whereas Hendel is apparently a hardcore not-Netanyahu right-winger. 

Shaked decided to go back to her former ideological home, the Jewish Home party, which is now led by her. Alas, the Jewish Home is only polling around 2%, and Shaked’s leadership has not helped it by much. 

Likud poised to win

In the wake of the mid-September deadline, there have been four official polls. While the first three (channel 12, 13 and 11) gave the hardcore, Jewish-fundamentalist Netanyahu bloc 60 seats, the fourth from yesterday (Channel 14) gave it a clear win of 62. That bloc consists of Likud, Religious Zionism (including the Kahanist Jewish Power in majority representation), the orthodox-Ashkenazi United Torah Judaism and the orthodox-Mizrahi Shas. 

Netanyahu has been pushing this point very hard in his media messages, that “we are touching 61”. The recent poll suggests they are passing it. 

One must also regard the possibility of smaller parties not making it over the electoral threshold, and their “wasted votes” being distributed to the remaining parties. If this happens, statistically, the bigger parties have an advantage at gathering another mandate or more. 

It thus appears rather likely that Israel will be seeing one of its most extreme right-wing governments in history. 

Is it possible that Israel will be thrown into yet another forever-election, maybe even a sixth election within four years? In theory, yes. 

But the political landscape appears to tilt the weights rightwards. It is worth mentioning that the left-Zionist Meretz also polled only 4 seats in the recent poll. That party sold its soul to apartheid during its governance, passing apartheid laws and regulations for the sake of governmental unity. Its raison d’etre is in question. Even if it makes it through, that anti-Netanyahu bloc appears weaker than ever. 

Meanwhile, time seems to have worked for Netanyahu. He is a patient campaigner. Although the four elections since April 2019 have produced stalemates and short-lived governments, Likud is still by far the largest bloc, and is demonstrating stability among a landscape of considerable disarray. Netanyahu won party primaries last month, cementing his leadership. 

It is worth noting that while Lapid presents himself as a beacon of liberalism, his leadership has not been democratically contested — he has led the Yesh Atid party since its establishment in 2012, and his chairmanship has been extended three times (although the rules allow only twice). Last year Lapid was challenged to hold primaries by Ofer Shelah, one of the party’s founders. Lapid refused and pushed him out. Finally, the party announced it would hold primaries in January of this year, but then canceled it, instead extending Lapid’s tenure for the next three parliamentary cycles, citing the political deadlock and “special circumstances”. A one-man party indeed. 

But Lapid, despite the fact that he now governs and leads the second largest party (which polls about 23 compared to Likud’s roughly 33), does not measure up to Netanyahu in terms of public trust for him as premier. The recent poll indicated that between Netanyahu, Lapid, and Benny Gantz, 50% want Netanyahu as premier. Only 25% want Lapid. And less than one out of six want Gantz. 

Jewish power

If Netanyahu wins it, as seems to be likely, it will now be with a considerable representation of the Kahanist Jewish Power. Netanyahu has lobbied hard to merge Jewish Power with Bezalel Smotrich’s religious Zionism, and that has resulted in getting Itamar Ben Gvir into the parliament. Ben Gvir is an admirer of the Jewish terrorist Baruch Goldstein, who massacred Palestinian worshippers at the Al Ibrahimi Mosque in Al-Khalil (Hebron) in 1994, killing 29 and wounding 125. Ben Gvir’s official appearance as a lawmaker broke a taboo in Israeli politics since the banning of Meir Kahane from running in elections in 1988. Goldstein was a disciple of Kahane. 

This time, Jewish Power seems to have a much more considerable representation. During the summer, Ben Gvir first split from Religious Zionism, citing displeasure with Jewish Power representation in the joint party. Polls then predicted greater support for the merger if Ben Gvir was leader rather than Smotrich. Netanyahu again lobbied hard to get them together, and they did — now with more substantial representation of Jewish Power (with Ben Gvir as number 2). This caused Ben Gvir to announce:

“With God’s help, in the next Knesset there will be five Ben Gvirs serving. We will establish a national government, a full right-wing government, stable and strong for Israel.”  

His prophecy appears reasonably viable. 

Finally, it is worth reflecting upon the political landscape in Israel as a whole, without Netanyahu as a focus — as the anti-Netanyahu bloc is not necessarily opposed to his right-wing ideology. If Netanyahu were theoretically not the leader of Likud, and another leader more amenable to the other right-wing forces were leading Likud, this would open up for a decidedly right-wing government of over 80, and this is counting out Lapid’s Yesh Atid (which is not really left-wing). 

Indeed, if Netanyahu were not in the picture, Israel would look even more right-wing than it does today.

The problem isn’t with Netanyahu, it’s with Israel. And whatever political force may come instead of him may even be worse.

Jonathan Ofir is an Israeli musician, conductor and blogger/writer based in Denmark