Can Netanyahu manage Ben-Gvir and the far Right? - opinion

The government that Netanyahu will have the easiest time forming – with the Religious Zionist Party, Shas and UTJ – will be the most religious and extreme government in Israeli history.

 ITAMAR BEN-GVIR will not make Benjamin Netanyahu’s life easy in a government they form together. (photo credit: CORINNA KERN/REUTERS)
ITAMAR BEN-GVIR will not make Benjamin Netanyahu’s life easy in a government they form together.
(photo credit: CORINNA KERN/REUTERS)

Israel, it seems, will finally have a government and one that has the potential to remain in power for a full parliamentary term.

Is it the government everyone dreamed of? No. Is it what all of the people hoped for? Also, no. But even with its flaws there is a silver lining – hopefully, the country will not be thrown back into political turmoil for a bit of time. That itself has got to be worth something.

There is something more – the people have spoken. A majority of this country voted for this exact government. When someone cast a ballot for Benjamin Netanyahu on Tuesday, they knew they were getting Itamar Ben-Gvir. No one thought that a vote for Netanyahu meant a unity government with Yair Lapid. And if they did, well, they should have paid closer attention to what has been going on here over the last three years.

This is what the majority of the country chose and that is how a democracy works. It is now their time to govern.

The question, of course, is what the price will be and what damage will be done by the time the next election rolls along. The government that Netanyahu will have the easiest time forming – with the Religious Zionist Party, Shas and UTJ – will be the most religious and extreme government in Israeli history.

 Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu addresses his supporters at his party headquarters during Israel's general election in Jerusalem, November 2, 2022.  (credit: AMMAR AWAD/REUTERS) Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu addresses his supporters at his party headquarters during Israel's general election in Jerusalem, November 2, 2022. (credit: AMMAR AWAD/REUTERS)

Not only will any dream of religious freedom in this country need to be buried, the expected new government will be the final step in normalizing the racist far Right in Israel. We might not like it, but soon Itamar Ben-Gvir will be a top minister in the Israeli government. That is how elections work.

Netanyahu knows this all and it makes him uncomfortable. People close to the Likud leader speak openly about the debates they have been having over how they will keep this government somewhere in the normative Right and from falling over the edge. It is, to say the least, not the government Netanyahu had prayed he would come back to.

Historically, when looking at Netanyahu’s previous governments, he always brought in someone to the right of him and someone to his left who was perceived as more moderate. In 2009, there was Ehud Barak on the Left and Avigdor Liberman on the Right; in 2013, there was Tzipi Livni on the Left and Naftali Bennett on the Right; and in 2015, there was Moshe Kahlon in the Center and Bennett again on the Right.

This government is only to Netanyahu’s right. Shas and UTJ are religious extremists who believe in little freedom for the secular. Ben-Gvir and Bezalel Smotrich are part of the far Right. Their vision of coexistence is very different than what this country – including Netanyahu – have been promoting for the last 30 years.

But this is also the government that won the election. People who voted for Netanyahu and Likud knew that the government on the horizon was one that would include Ben-Gvir. The same was for people who voted for the Religious Zionist Party. They can’t now claim they didn’t know.

For the supporters, this is also the exact government that will be able to potentially deliver on what the right wing has long claimed it seeks to do – annex West Bank settlements, dismantle the Palestinian Authority, legalize illegal West Bank outposts, reform the rule of law, split the role of the attorney-general and more.

What will be interesting to see is whether any of this happens and, if it doesn’t, who Netanyahu will blame. With this coalition, Netanyahu could bring legislation to the Knesset at its first session to annex the West Bank or at least the Israeli settlements that are there. Will he do it and, if not, why?

Until now, there was always a convenient answer. When he promised to annex the West Bank in 2020 and then stopped, he blamed Jared Kushner. Before that, it was Tzipi Livni and Barack Obama. When he didn’t attack Iran back in 2012 it was because of Benny Gantz, who was the IDF chief of staff at the time. It was never him; it was always someone else.

The reality is that Netanyahu will have someone to blame but this time it will be himself. The real reason he did not do any of those things until now was because he did not want to. He had multiple opportunities over the years to annex the West Bank, as an example, but he always stopped short. He had no problem or hesitation holding a press conference to announce the intention but then when he received the power, he never followed through.

Which Netanyahu is taking office in Israel?

Which leads to the question on a lot of people’s minds – who is the Netanyahu who will be taking office in the next few weeks? Is it the Netanyahu who was always careful to use force and hesitant to take controversial diplomatic steps? Or, is it a new Netanyahu, one who changed after 18 months in the opposition and who is determined at all costs to change the country.

If the former, then we are about to get the Netanyahu who was prime minister in the past. This will be a Netanyahu who will do everything possible to keep his government intact while not doing anything that cannot be changed in the future. If it is the latter, then it will be a different kind of prime minister, one who could end up being controlled by the more right-wing elements in his coalition.

As things look now, Netanyahu has two options. He could try and sway Benny Gantz to enter the coalition instead of the Religious Zionist Party. The problem is that this is not as simple as it seems.

While on paper, Gantz has 12 seats and RZP has 14, in reality, Gantz only has six seats. Two belong to Gadi Eisenkot and Matan Kahana, who are free agents and will not necessarily enter a Netanyahu government even if Gantz wanted, and the other four belong to Gideon Sa’ar. Would Gantz be able to convince everyone to come with him? Unclear.

On the other hand, he might not need to. If Smotrich and Ben-Gvir split, Netanyahu could use Gantz just to replace Ben-Gvir. Would Smotrich go for that? Also, not certain.

On the other hand, Gantz is the easiest target for Netanyahu if he wants to try to avoid Ben-Gvir. There is little doubt that the Americans are putting pressure on Gantz and trying to get him to ease his veto a bit and consider joining Netanyahu for the “sake of the country.”

This tactic worked in the past on Gantz (during the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic) and might work again. Even if Gantz’s patriotism sometimes leads to foolish political decisions, it is undoubtedly sincere.

On the other hand, it is not even clear that Netanyahu would want Gantz in the government with him. Doing so, and keeping Ben-Gvir out, would basically mean that Netanyahu does not plan on passing legislation that would cancel his trial and keep him out of jail. That would be too much for Gantz.

What Netanyahu might prefer, is to first establish the right-wing government, pass the legislation that he wants, see if it stands up in the High Court and if it does and the trial is done, then invite Gantz into his government. At that point, Gantz would not have a real reason to veto the Likud leader.