Will Netanyahu be leading the coalition or will the coalition be leading Netanyahu? - opinion

Israel is in the limelight for both being Jewish and being a Jewish democracy, as defined in its Declaration of Independence.

 BENJAMIN NETANYAHU arrives at the Jerusalem District Court for a hearing in his trial, in May. The writer asks: What will Netanyahu need to concede in exchange for his get-out-of-jail-free card? (photo credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)
BENJAMIN NETANYAHU arrives at the Jerusalem District Court for a hearing in his trial, in May. The writer asks: What will Netanyahu need to concede in exchange for his get-out-of-jail-free card?
(photo credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)

Perhaps to an exhaustive extent, contemporary political reporting has highlighted the increasingly polarized and divisive climate both abroad and in the United States. In Latin America, we see the “pink tide” with countries like Colombia electing a left-wing government for the first time in modern history this past summer and Brazil reelecting Lula da Silva at the end of last month. In Europe, the right-wing Swedish Democrats doubled its support and became part of the governing coalition, and the Brothers of Italy candidate Giorgia Meloni is now the prime minister of Italy.

In the US, we saw a strong shift to the Left when, in 2020, the Democrats won the presidency and the majority in the House and Senate – while technically a tie in the Senate, Vice President Harris has the tiebreaking vote, giving the Democrats a majority. It appears that Democrats held this momentum in the midterm elections last week by maintaining control of the Senate.

While “Right” and “Left” may have very different meanings in the local Israeli context compared to Latin America, Western Europe and the US, Israeli politics have also been volatile, with Israel just completing its fifth election since 2019, this week. Importantly, this election had the highest voter turnout since 2015. Benjamin Netanyahu, a man who has been called everything from an exemplary statesman to a criminal, will likely lead the new right-wing coalition that will govern Israel.

Watching Netanyahu's rise or fall

With coalition leaders who have been associated with similar hate-based and racist terrorism that mirrors the far-right terrorism in the US, a growing phenomenon that accounts for most terrorist incidents in the US since 1994, all eyes are on Netanyahu, perhaps the modern-day Odysseus and “great tactician,” to see if he rises to the challenge to lead with civility and the well-being of all of Israelis in mind.

 LIKUD PARTY head Benjamin Netanyahu, Oct. 3. (credit: AVSHALOM SASSONI/FLASH90) LIKUD PARTY head Benjamin Netanyahu, Oct. 3. (credit: AVSHALOM SASSONI/FLASH90)

Fortunately or unfortunately, Israel is in the limelight for both being Jewish and being a Jewish democracy, as defined in its Declaration of Independence. It’s in the limelight for being Jewish because Jews have been the timeless scapegoat and as evidenced in recent years by the adoption of the “3D test of antisemitism” by the US Department of State and countless other entities, anti-Israel comments are too often antisemitism in disguise rather than legitimate criticisms of Israel and Israeli policy.

Israel is in the limelight for being a Jewish democracy because Western political theory tells us that State and religion must remain separate. Emerging out of the Enlightenment, and the French and American revolutions, the concept of the separation of Church and State has dominated Western political ideology and governance. While Israeli founders and much of Israeli society likely understand “Jewish” to refer to Jewish peoplehood rather than the more restrictive definition of Judaism as a religion, to outsiders, Israel’s success creates dissonance with our belief in the separation of Church vs State.

From advocacy organizations to US government officials, the high turnout of voters in this Israeli election has been praised and the desire to work together on shared interests and values has been reaffirmed. Simultaneously, the fear of possible fundamental shifts to Israeli society, largely led by far-right religious leaders tied to inciting racism and a connection to a domestic terror group perhaps justified and pronounced.

BROADLY SPEAKING, will Netanyahu be leading the coalition or will the coalition be leading Netanyahu? On behalf of Israel, what will Netanyahu need to concede in exchange for his get-out-of-jail-free card?

Despite its popularity in heated discussions, the two-states solution will likely be unaffected, as recent polls show it is supported by less than 40% of Palestinians and less than 40% of Jewish Israelis. One important issue on the table, however, is Ben-Gvir’s proposed deportation law that he self-described to “deport anyone who acts against the State of Israel or IDF soldiers.” To whom will this apply and who would have the authority to enforce this law?

Even if this law does not pass, will Ben-Gvir be named public security minister? What types of violence and or lethal force will be tolerated to keep the coalition as one? One might ask him at what point will the Jewish belief in the preservation of human life triumph over ideological fury?

A second important issue, of course, is safeguarding LGBTQIAA+ rights. Yet it is unclear as to how coalition leaders truly feel and what compromises will be made to stay in power. Ben-Gvir, a man who once described sexual minorities as an abomination, more recently said, “The homosexuals are my brothers and the lesbians are my sisters.” Is he more educated and informed or is this a guise in political rhetoric so that, once in power, he can attack the anti-gay conversion therapy law?

To what extent and at the cost of whose rights will Netanyahu go to stay out of jail? Can Netanyahu keep Israel as a space safe and a continued example for the rest of the world? Can he engage the opposition on his plight? Will the opposition band together with Netanyahu on specific issues? Could this be the moment and catalyst where the internal conversation takes place within the far-right religious leadership to respect everyone and honor the Jewish belief that everyone is created in the image of God?

Netanyahu himself, one of the primary issues in recent elections, is no longer a voting issue but what will be the cost of Netanyahu’s legacy to Israeli society and the world? Is this right-wing coalition imminent or now that Netanyahu is off the ballot, how does the landscape change?

A once-fringe group of far-Right religious extremism has now made its way to center-stage Israeli politics. Are the criminal and prejudicial jargon and actions of the past a reflection of upbringing rather than current beliefs? Are they populist tropes to engage voters or are they true intentions to subjugate and disrespect fellow citizens and neighbors?

Perhaps one of the greatest politicians of modern times is now at the helm with a naïve and extreme crew. Is this a final act of desperation to avoid prison or a final act of leadership for Israel and the Jewish people?

Has Netanyahu’s leadership fallen into self-preservation or has he risen, albeit unintentionally, to the challenge to create a more integrated and engaged Israeli society? Rather than watching Israel further fragment into secular and religious extremes, will he be able to lead with principles and bridge these communities?

In 2005, right-wing Israeli leader Ariel Sharon did the unexpected and led Israel’s unilateral withdrawal from Gaza. What unexpected legacy may Netanyahu leave?

The writer was recently awarded a Fulbright research grant and specializes in community development and foreign policy. He has conducted research in and about Israel that can be found in peer-reviewed academic journals and news outlets. Previously, he served as a Ralph I. Goldman Fellow with the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC).