Will this gov't be the biggest challenge for Netanyahu? - opinion

Benjamin Netanyahu is set to return to Israel's top job after a resounding victory in the country's fifth election in under four years.

 PRESIDENT ISAAC Herzog presents a letter to MK Benjamin Netanyahu, giving him a mandate to try to form a government coalition, at the President’s Residence in Jerusalem, on Sunday (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
PRESIDENT ISAAC Herzog presents a letter to MK Benjamin Netanyahu, giving him a mandate to try to form a government coalition, at the President’s Residence in Jerusalem, on Sunday

Talk about a comeback.

After an unexpected end to 12 consecutive years in the Prime Minister’s Office, and amid an ongoing corruption trial, Benjamin Netanyahu is set to return to Israel’s top job after a resounding victory in the country’s fifth election in under four years. No matter what one thinks of Israel’s longest-serving premier, there’s no doubt that this victory is quite remarkable.

Not only is it his third ascension to power after an enormous setback, but he appears, at least on paper, to have broken Israel’s political deadlock, with his bloc winning 64 of the Knesset’s 120 seats.

But things are never so simple with Netanyahu. The extremists he relied on for victory will pose unprecedented challenges to the political maestro, and a failure to contain them could spell domestic and diplomatic disaster for Israel.

Likely to be the second largest bloc in Netanyahu’s coalition is the Religious Zionist Party, having combined with the anti-LGBTQ Noam and Otzma Yehudit party. Most concerning in this alliance is Otzma Yehudit head Itamar Ben-Gvir. 

Benjamin Netanyahu (credit: HADAS PARUSH/FLASH90)Benjamin Netanyahu (credit: HADAS PARUSH/FLASH90)

Disqualified from Israel’s compulsory military service due to his extremist record, in 2007 he was convicted of incitement to racism and supporting a terrorist organization. Until 2020, he had a photo of Baruch Goldstein – who in 1994 massacred 29 Muslims in Hebron – hung in his home.

Until recently, such extremists were condemned to Israel’s fringe, and rightly so. But after alienating erstwhile mainstream allies, Netanyahu turned to these parties in the hope of cobbling together a parliamentary majority and quashing his criminal charges. And after running a campaign of moderation that tapped into very real Israeli traumas that saw his popularity skyrocket, Ben-Gvir may soon be Israel’s next public security minister, which, among other things, would hand him control over the police.

Together with the Religious Zionist Party’s Bezalel Smotrich and Noam’s Avi Maoz, the bloc’s stated goals – which include radical judicial reforms, deporting “disloyal” Israelis, and anti-LGBTQ legislation – could send Israel down a terrifying path.

And while a government is yet to be formed, the Jewish state’s closest ally has already expressed concern. In September, US senator and chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee Bob Menendez warned Netanyahu that including Ben-Gvir in his coalition could harm US-Israel ties. Weeks later, US officials told Axios that the Biden administration would likely boycott the extremist politician.

Who else is disturbed by Netanyahu's partners?

The US isn’t Israel’s only ally disturbed by Netanyahu’s hardline partners. On November 3, a spokeswoman for British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak called on “all Israeli parties to refrain from inflammatory language and demonstrate tolerance and respect for minority groups.” 

With the US State Department recently blasting Ben-Gvir’s attendance at a memorial for the racist Meir Kahane as “abhorrent,” all signs point to a more rocky relationship with the West should Ben-Gvir and co. take up senior ministerial positions in Israel’s next government.

Netanyahu knows this, and all eyes will be on how he handles his hardline allies for whom he has little sympathy. While they will likely try to hold him hostage to their demands in return for legislation to halt his corruption trial, a measure of gratitude is owed to Bibi, without whom most of them would be stuck on the sidelines. As one of Israel’s greatest-ever statesmen, Netanyahu wields enormous power over proposed legislation.

Despite partnering with extremists, some experts believe he will be reluctant to accept their demands. “Contrary to his reputation abroad,” Israeli author Yossi Klein Halevi recently wrote, Netanyahu, is “one of Israel’s most cautious” leaders and “doesn’t want to become an international pariah.” 

His recent actions have hinted at this, with Netanyahu reportedly promising to block any anti-LGBTQ legislation. At an event two weeks before the election, he infuriated Ben-Gvir after refusing to step onto the stage until Ben-Gvir left it. (This appears part of a deliberate election tactic by Netanyahu not to be photographed with the far-right lawmaker.)

Internal discussions within his Likud party also suggest increasing frustrations with Ben-Gvir, with the Times of Israel’s Haviv Rettig Gur observing that “the Israeli Right is already uncomfortable with the scale of its own victory.”

This all points to what is gearing up to be an immensely unhappy but politically necessary marriage between Netanyahu and his new partners. But while many onlookers believe the master politician can subdue the dangerous fantasies that will be pushed in his coalition, Netanyahu is no superhuman. 

Desperate to escape his corruption charges but reliant on his coalition partners to do so, he may soon find himself forced to stomach policies intolerable to most of Israel and its allies. Whether this turns out to be the one move that causes irreparable damage to both Netanyahu and the Jewish state remains to be seen.

Josh Feldman is an Australian writer who focuses primarily on Israeli and Jewish issues. Twitter: @joshrfeldman