A Scandal-Plagued Netanyahu Returns for His Fifth Term as Israeli Prime Minister

With final election results having been announced by Israel’s Central Elections Committee, Haaretz declared that former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud Party achieved a decisive victory in Tuesday’s parliamentary elections by securing 32 seats, compared to the 24 seats won by its main competitor Yesh Atid, which is led by current caretaker Prime Minister Yair Lapid. This result gives Likud and its extreme nationalist and religious right-wing allies an indisputable political win with a clear majority of 64 Knesset seats, and assures that Netanyahu—already Israel’s longest-serving prime minister—will return to office for the sixth time since 2009.

Netanyahu, clearly invigorated by his victory, thanked Israeli voters for what he termed a “huge vote of confidence,” despite the fact that his own party, Likud, did not necessarily perform exceptionally well at the polls compared to his ultra-right allies. Lapid, meanwhile, conceded the election and congratulated Netanyahu on his political win.

There are several lessons that can be drawn from this election—the country’s fifth in less than four years. First, despite repeated electoral attempts to ensure a sense of stability, durability, and effective governance, these goals remain just as elusive as they have been for decades due to the deteriorating coalition governance system in Israel and the crumbling claim that Israel is a functioning democracy that serves all of its citizens, Jewish and Palestinian alike. This claim now lacks credibility in the eyes of a significant sector of the Israeli public and of many of its supporters worldwide, particularly among Jewish youth in the diaspora. Israel has proven incapable of maintaining a reliable and steady government for at least the past five years. This prompted Herb Keinon of the Jerusalem Post to ask if Israel is “barreling toward a sixth election round.”

Second, the drift to the extreme right in Israeli society has become deeply institutionalized in the country’s political system, as well as in its sociopolitical makeup. This is no longer the liberal and socialist Israel of the 1950s and 60s, which won the admiration of so many supporters in the international community. This is the Israel of extreme nationalist and religious Zionist supremacists like Itamar Ben-Gvir and Bezalel Smotrich, who are the political and spiritual offspring of American-born racist and ultra-nationalist Orthodox rabbi Meir Kahane, who was convicted of committing acts of domestic terrorism in the United States before emigrating to Israel.

The Religious Zionist Party, which is currently led by Smotrich, has emerged from this election as the third largest party in the Knesset, controlling 14 seats—three times the number of seats held by the Labor Party, which governed Israel for decades. The presence of ideologically motivated right-wing parties in parliament is not a situation that is unique to Israel. However, legitimizing such groups, celebrating them, and inviting them to take part in a ruling coalition is a phenomenon that is becoming uniquely Israeli, and looks to be a part of Israeli politics in 2022 and beyond.

Third, the November 1 election proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that the State of Israel is no longer committed to a peaceful settlement with the Palestinians, whether based on a two-state proposal or any other diplomatic option, despite the lip-service paid to this issue over the past three or four decades of successive Israeli governments. As a matter of fact, the issue of ending the 55-year-old Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories and seeking peace with their inhabitants was entirely absent from mainstream campaigns in 2022 and was generally treated as the proverbial elephant in the room. The hypocrisy of a self-described democracy holding national elections while simultaneously disenfranchising the more than 5 million people who live under its military control, including hundreds of thousands of Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem is glaring, and sadly, is not without precedent. These millions were denied a voice on November 1, 2022, just as they were in April 2019, September 2019, March 2020, and March 2021.

Clearly, the results of the 2022 national elections in Israel have significant implications for the country’s domestic, regional, and foreign policies. On the home front, the biggest challenge remains focused on whether Netanyahu—if or when he is asked to by President Isaac Herzog—will be able to put together a functioning and lasting government. Furthermore, the Israeli public will eventually have to recover from campaign excitement and reconcile itself to the question of what kind of Israel they chose. What sort of Israel will their children inherit if far-right parties are invited to play an active role in the new Netanyahu government? And more importantly, will an extreme-right Israeli government continue to enjoy the political and financial support of mainstream Jewish groups in the diaspora, particularly those based in the United States? Recent statements by well-known Israeli supporters on Capitol Hill like Senator Robert Menendez and Representative Brad Sherman raise serious doubts in this regard.

Another internal dilemma facing Israel is the impact of this election on the Palestinian community inside Israel, whose significance and voting impact received broad international attention during the campaign. Jafar Farah, the director of the Mossawa Advocacy Center in Haifa, has predicted that there will be an increase in friction, house demolitions, and land confiscation, and a rise in police violence against his community by a new government that incorporates Jewish ultranationalist elements that label Palestinian citizens of Israel as “terrorists.”

As far as regional politics are concerned, many issues are destined to be impacted by these election results, but none more significantly than the tense and explosive situation in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, including East Jerusalem. Human rights activists are already predicting that a Netanyahu government will be a disaster for Palestinians, particularly at this crucial juncture. Meanwhile, the official Palestinian reaction to exit polls and already released results has been both blunt and reflective of the Palestinian public’s frustration with Israel’s policies of neglect and protracted—if not permanent—occupation. Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh, who emphasized that Palestinians had no “illusions” about the 2022 election, stated, “The results confirm that we have no partner in Israel for peace.” This is not good news for those who still believe in the possibility of Israeli-Palestinian peace based on the two-state option, whether they are based in the region, or in Washington, DC.

On the international scene, many of Israel’s traditional supporters—including the United States—felt awkward acknowledging Netanyahu’s victory, considering that their preference is for Lapid, who is widely viewed in the West as more moderate and cooperative than Netanyahu and his new partners. Since the start of this year’s parliamentary campaigning, the US has quietly expressed its preference for a Lapid- or Benny Gantz-led government in Israel, for reasons directly related to US policies on the Ukraine war, the JCPOA agreement with Iran, the Abraham Accords, and Biden’s shaky commitment to the two-state solution. Furthermore, Netanyahu’s disdain for Biden is an open secret in Tel Aviv, as well as in Washington, and is a feeling that is most probably mutual. Other than a warm message of congratulation sent by Senator Ted Cruz, Fox News reports that “Benjamin Netanyahu’s win in Israel’s latest election has drawn a muted response from the US as policymakers wrestle with the implications for foreign policy in the Middle East.” The Los Angeles Times, meanwhile, was much more assertive in its analysis, declaring that, “A Netanyahu government would probably clash with the Biden Administration.”

It remains to be seen whether Washington has the courage to stand firmly behind its own national interests in the region, or whether it will willingly conform to Netanyahu’s typically bellicose disposition. The decision is certainly a tough one, but it requires far more than the administration’s limited threat to boycott Itamar Ben-Gvir or his Jewish supremacist partners. A “no-contact policy” with these extremists will simply not cut it, neither morally nor politically, and especially not for an administration that recently reaffirmed its commitment to protecting democracy and human rights around the world. Here, too, the hypocrisy would be glaring.

Featured image credit: Shutterstock/Roman Yanushevsky