Netanyahu's Right won, but can he build a coalition with Ben-Gvir?

For Netanyahu, Shas and UTJ are dream coalition partners. The Religious Zionist Party, featuring Itamar Ben-Gvir, is an Israeli diplomatic nightmare.

 Head of the Otzma Yehudit Party MK Itamar Ben-Gvir speaks to supporters as the results of the Israeli elections are announced, at the party's campaign headquarters in Jerusalem, November 1, 2022. (photo credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)
Head of the Otzma Yehudit Party MK Itamar Ben-Gvir speaks to supporters as the results of the Israeli elections are announced, at the party's campaign headquarters in Jerusalem, November 1, 2022.
(photo credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)

"Good morning Israel," an ecstatic MK Itamar Ben-Gvir tweeted the morning after the Religious Zionist Party (RZP), in which he is the second top politician, soared to an unprecedented 14 seats in Tuesday's election.

"The time has come for a full-fledged right-wing government. The time has come to be the masters of the house in our own country," Ben-Gvir wrote.

"The time has come for a full-fledged right-wing government. The time has come to be the masters of the house in our own country."

Itamar Ben-Gvir

It was a fantasy turned into reality moment for a long-time anti-establishment activist turned attorney, who is now likely to be on his way to be a minister in the next government. 

The dawning of Israel's new political reality

Israel woke up to a new political universe on Wednesday, in which its rainbow government of right, center and left-wing parties, will now likely be replaced with one of the most right-wing governments in Israel's history.

 MK Itamar Ben-Gvir (Religious Zionist Party) tours Mahaneh Yehuda market in the run-up to Israel’s elections. (credit: AMIR COHEN/REUTERS) MK Itamar Ben-Gvir (Religious Zionist Party) tours Mahaneh Yehuda market in the run-up to Israel’s elections. (credit: AMIR COHEN/REUTERS)

On the surface of it, Ben-Gvir's tweet isn't a prophecy, it's simply a statement of the new political reality in Israel.

Given the election results a right-wing coalition is so obvious, one could imagine for a moment that the political paralysis that has gripped the country since the end of 2018, plunging it into an unprecedented sequence of five elections cycles, has now ended.

Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu, now likely to be given the first chance to form a government, should be able to come to coalition agreements with the (RZP) and the two ultra-religious parties Shas and United Torah Judaism for a 65-seat government.

It's a move that could return Netanyahu to the Prime Minister's Office, following the electoral loss that ousted him in 2021.

More than Ben-Gvir's moment, this should be Netanyahu's moment. 

Netanyahu, who was in office from 1996-1999 and again from 2009-2021, prides himself on being the undisputed leader of the Israeli Right.

A fluent English speaker, who studied at both Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, he has walked a tight-rope balance between successful diplomatic discourse with the international community, while simultaneously holding onto his right-wing base. Looking back at his track record one can discern four relevant patterns to the way he operates. 

In the first pattern, Netanyahu often uses checks and balances, both on the international stage and in coalition building, in which he is willing to suffer diplomatic or political losses in other victories. 

One need look no further than the agreement he made in 2020 to suspend the application of sovereignty to West Bank settlements in exchange for the Abraham Accords in which Israel normalized ties with four Arab countries.

Under the second pattern, Netanyahu is more likely to move the situation forward in small discernible steps, rather than dramatic upheavals. 

Third, he must stand in the center of the stage with full political freedom to act rather than suffer under constrictions from his coalition partners. It is often when they try to overly dictate government policy that he seeks either to replace them with more pliable partners or to collapse the government altogether. 

Fourth, Netanyahu often buys wiggle room to take unpopular steps, by blaming another politician for gumming up the works. 

For Netanyahu, Shas and UTJ are dream coalition partners, particularly given that combined they received a hefty 19 of the 61 needed seats to form a government. Their demands are often domestic and do not have severe consequences for Netanyahu.

Religious Zionist Party is Netanyahu's unwieldy diplomatic nightmare

The RZP was a helpful party for Netanyahu to campaign with on shared values of a greater land of Israel, Jewish sovereignty and opposition to Palestinian statehood. In reality, they present him with an unwieldy diplomatic nightmare.

The party calls for the full application of sovereignty over West Bank settlements or at the very least in the settlement blocs. 

Failing that it wants to move forward on de facto sovereignty in Judea and Samaria, including disbanding the IDF's civil administration and allowing Israeli miniseries to govern Israeli civilian life in the West Bank. 

The RZP wants to see the authorization of 70 West Bank outposts, which it calls "young communities," either as new settlements or as neighborhoods of existing ones. It opposes Palestinian development in Area C of the West Bank and wants the IDF to increase its demolitions of illegal Palestinian construction.

Then there is the issue of its support for Jewish prayer on the Temple Mount. These are only some of their issues, which also include harsher responses to Palestinian violence in the West Bank and death sentences 

It's likely to want to see some of these demands in its coalition agreement with Likud, but action on any of them would likely put Netanyahu on a collision course with US President Joe Biden who is opposed to all such actions, to say nothing of European Union opposition.

That is on top of the already existing objections to Ben-Gvir, whose victory speech was interrupted by calls of "death to terrorists," a slogan that critics worry was a toned-down version of "death to Arabs."

Unlike Netanyahu who excels at bending without folding, the RZP is likely to take die-hard stands on its issue, particularly given its large size, thereby extending and complicating the negotiations process.

It's likely that to circumvent RZP die-hard stands, Netanyahu could turn to the National Unity Party head Benny Gantz, who at 12 seats could be an alternative from a policy perspective. It's not an easy replacement, given that Gantz has repeatedly stated that he Is opposed to joining a Netanyahu coalition and their pasts attempt to sit together did not even last a year. 

Still, despite their enmity, Netanyahu has more in common with Gantz ideologically than with the RZP. 

When he was first elected in 2009, Netanyahu represented the hard right, but over time he has become one of the most moderate members of the nationalistic camp that he leads, even within his own party.

In a Gantz union, Netanyahu can continue to protest that he is a die-hard right-winger held back by the National Resilience Party. In a coalition with RZP, Netanyahu risks suddenly standing out as a centrist.

Smotrich told Channel 12 on Wednesday night, that he thought coalition talks could be quickly wrapped up.

The next weeks, however,  are likely to represent a game of protected political chicken between Netanyahu and RZP head Smotrich, in which the right-wing dream coalition could fall apart, as the two parties try to bring their differences.

Netanyahu of course could get over the first political crisis in the name of putting a government in place, by paying lip service to a coalition agreement with the RZP he can never fulfill in the next two years.

For that to work the RZP, will in the name of being in the government, likely have to agree, not to walk when it turns out those demands are not met.

At the end of the day, it has been divisions in the right-wing camp, not the strength of the Left, that have prevented a full right-wing government. The right-wing nationalistic camp is often united in values but divided on how to execute them.

Unless the RZP reduces its maximalist demand, this right-wing dream coalition is likely to be brief and fleeting, if indeed it ever gets off the ground.