Netanyahu and the right are about to regain power; they’ll hold it for a long time

This Editor’s Note was sent out earlier Wednesday in ToI’s weekly update email to members of the Times of Israel Community. To receive these Editor’s Notes as they’re released, join the ToI Community here.

The eight-party coalition that took office in Israel a year ago was always misrepresentative of the electorate’s ideological affiliations. More than 70 of the 120 politicians Israelis voted into the Knesset in March 2021 came from seven firmly right-wing parties, either secular or religious — Likud, Shas, Yamina, United Torah Judaism, Yisrael Beytenu, Religious Zionism and New Hope.

Israel has been governed these past 12 months by a coalition that spans the political spectrum from right to left, with an Islamist party for good measure, only because the leaders of three of those seven right-wing parties (Yamina, Yisrael Beytenu and New Hope) opted to put aside core principles for what they argued was a greater Israeli interest: ousting Benjamin Netanyahu.

And so it was last June that Netanyahu found himself consigned to the opposition after a record 12-year stint as prime minister, and several of his former allies, led by Naftali Bennett, joined forces with his longtime political opponents to run the country.

Today, though, the coalition is on its last legs. First, it lost its narrow majority. Now it cannot even reliably manage 60-60 parity in parliament.

On Monday night, it came nowhere near mustering the votes to pass routine legislation to renew the application of Israeli law to settlers — legislation the right-wing opposition voted down despite fully supporting it, so that Netanyahu can show Israelis that their government simply no longer has the votes to govern.

Immediately after that ignominious defeat for Prime Minister Bennett, he and his coalition were further humiliated when one of his Yamina MKs, Idit Silman, placed herself firmly in the Netanyahu camp by casting the “no” vote that prevented the reappointment of her own party colleague Matan Kahana, as minister for religious services.

“Bennett – go home,” Netanyahu’s Likud immediately sniped. “It’s over.”

Well, not quite. Not yet. But very soon.

The final blow to the coalition could come at any time and from innumerable directions, but come it will. And with the curious and ultimately unworkable Bennett-Yair Lapid interruption over, the Israeli right will regain power, likely hold it long into the future, and steer a strikingly hardline course.

Current polls show what we might call the “non-coalition right” resurgent. Likud, Religious Zionism and the two ultra-Orthodox parties managed 52 seats in the March 2021 elections; now those four parties are polling at 59-60 seats — on the cusp of a Knesset majority without Bennett, Avigdor Liberman or Gideon Sa’ar. Indeed, a Tuesday poll by Kan TV showed Sa’ar’s New Hope party failing to so much as make it back into the Knesset.

That same survey showed Religious Zionism — which includes among its leading lights the radical provocateur Itamar Ben Gvir — leaping to 10 seats from the six it won last year, and overtaking Bennett’s Yamina as the prime vote-getter on the religious right. Far from gaining prestige, luster and support as prime minister, this and other recent polls suggest, Bennett stands to be punished for daring to forge partnerships with parties far outside his constituency’s comfort zone.

The Netanyahu-led right’s return need not necessitate elections at all. For all his denials, the prospect of political obliteration might yet prompt ex-Likud high-flyer Sa’ar to partner with his former boss in an alternate government without dissolving parliament. And even if Sa’ar proves a rare man of his political word, other coalition defectors might give the Likud leader a majority without going back to the electorate.

But one way or another, Netanyahu and his “national camp” are on their way back. The laudable effort by Ra’am’s Mansour Abbas to foster greater Jewish-Arab harmony and cooperation from the top down will be another casualty. And Israel will have the government of the ideological hue most of its electorate voted for a year ago.

Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid (L), Yamina leader Naftali Bennett (C) and Ra’am leader Mansour Abbas sign a coalition agreement on June 2, 2021. (Courtesy of Ra’am)

Israel has moved gradually to the right these past two decades — enduringly traumatized by the suicide-bomber onslaught of the Second Intifada, and dissuaded from territorial compromise by the rise of the Hezbollah and Hamas terror forces in the Lebanese and Gaza territories from which it withdrew.

The public knows the conflict with the Palestinians may worsen after Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas passes on; his successor is most unlikely to be more amenable. But Abbas, while not directly orchestrating terrorism in the manner of his predecessor Yasser Arafat, endorsed Arafat’s false narrative denying the Jews’ connection to their homeland, and thus presided over ongoing hostility to Israel’s very presence.

Restore Israelis’ confidence in the viability of a “land for peace” equation, Abbas emphatically did not. And while many Israelis oppose expanding settlements in areas Israel would need to relinquish should a two-state solution one day look more viable, that has long since ceased to be a consensual stance.

And so when the Bennett-led coalition falls, Israel will be led by parties that, in theory, want an impossible, mutually exclusive Israel — an Israel that more fully controls the West Bank (the biblical Judea and Samaria); an Israel that maintains its substantial Jewish majority; and an Israel that retains its democratic character. In tackling that impossibility, it is politicians who would resort to subverting our democracy, rather than those who would forgo annexation, who are now on the rise.

MK Itamar Ben Gvir at the Damascus Gate entrance to Jerusalem’s Old City, during Jerusalem Day celebrations, May 29, 2022. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Netanyahu himself chose peace with the United Arab Emirates over his plans to annex the settlements and the Jordan Valley; Religious Zionism’s Bezalel Smotrich and Itamar Ben Gvir, the two stars of Jerusalem Day’s triumphalist march through the Old City’s Muslim Quarter, would not easily allow any further step of this sort.

Will Smotrich and Ben Gvir get to wield that kind of power in the next Israeli government? Will Netanyahu finally garner the parliamentary support he needs to “reform” the judiciary and extricate himself from his corruption trial? It all depends on precisely how the current coalition falls apart, on who and how many of its MKs jump ship, on whether this Knesset coalesces behind a Netanyahu government or Israel goes back to the polls.

But the direction is clear and the shift is imminent. After a wildly improbable interregnum, the Israeli right is heading back to power for a long, long time — reflecting the Israeli electorate’s ideological preference. And it is likely to be more hawkish than ever before.

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