The Magician Returns: What Does Netanyahu’s Victory in the Knesset Elections Mean?

The Central Elections Committee in Israel announced the semi-final election results for the 25th Knesset on the evening of Thursday, 3 November 2022. The camp led by leader of the opposition and former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu won 64 out of a total 120 Knesset seats. This outcome was at odds with all opinion polls held in recent months. Meanwhile, current Prime Minister Yair Lapid’s camp won only 51 seats, which will allow veteran Israeli politician Netanyahu—whom his supporters refer to as the “magician”—to become prime minister again less than 18 months after he left office. Netanyahu will form what is expected to be one of the most right-wing governments in Israel’s history. Prime Minister Yair Lapid congratulated Netanyahu on his victory and affirmed that he would issue instructions for all branches of his government to prepare for an orderly transition of power.

Right Wing Takes Hold

The 25th Knesset election results illustrate the tight grip that right-wing and far-right parties hold over Israeli politics. Left-wing and centrist parties are clearly on the decline, as are Arab parties. This could have various implications, which can be summarized as follows:

1. Rise of right-wing extremism in Israeli politics: The latest election results clearly indicate the scope of the changes that Israel has experienced in recent years, which have led to the rise and perhaps domination of right-wing anti-Arab religious extremism within Israeli society. The religious Zionist bloc, led by Itamar Ben-Gvir and Bezalel Smotrich, took third place in the elections after Likud and Yesh Atid. According to the final results, the bloc took 14 seats in the Knesset after winning only 6 seats in the previous Knesset. Meanwhile, Shas, a Sephardic and Mizrahi Haredi party, won 11 seats after taking only 9 in the previous Knesset.

Leftist and centrist parties struggled in the recent elections: the Israeli Labor Party fell from 7 to 4 only seats, while Meretz fell below the electoral threshold for the first time. After all votes were counted, the latter party had not received the requisite 3.25 percent of valid votes in order to remain in the Knesset. This clearly demonstrates the extent to which the Israeli electorate is shifting towards the right. It is worth noting that there were two Meretz ministers in the outgoing government, one of whom was Arab.

2. Army’s popularity falls among Israeli public: Despite the status that former Israeli military leaders have previously enjoyed in Israeli political life, many polls have indicated that the influence and popularity of these leaders is falling among the Israeli electorate. This is especially true given the gradual national shift towards right-wing extremist political parties. Perhaps this is what the recent elections demonstrate: as the influence of extremist religious parties rises, Israel is witnessing a notable drop in the influence and popularity of army commanders in Israeli politics. The National Unity Party, led by Minister of Defense Benny Gantz and Gadi Eizenkot, who were both chiefs of the general staff in the IDF, fell from 14 to 12 seats in the most recent Knesset.

3. Likud and Netanyahu remain central to Israeli politics: The semi-final Knesset election results indicate that the Likud party remains central to Israeli political life. It is considered the main center-right party in Israel and has almost completely dominated Israeli politics since the historic victory of Menachem Begin against the Labor party’s Shimon Peres in 1977. This was the first defeat for the Israeli Labor Party since Israel was founded.

The election results also demonstrate that Netanyahu, or “King Bibi,” as his supporters in the Israeli political establishment call him, continues to play a pivotal role. He has had the longest tenure as prime minister in the country’s history (1996 to 1999 and then again from 2009 to 2021). He has been the foremost figure in Israeli politics for the last two decades. In the last five elections, rivalries within the Knesset have been between pro- and anti-Netanyahu camps.

Netanyahu’s significant influence over Knesset members and the Israeli media contributed significantly to challenging and ultimately dismantling the Bennett-Lapid“change” government. Even during the last several days leading up to the election, Netanyahu launched a major pressure campaign against the Lapid government in an effort to block a maritime border deal with Lebanon and to make Lapid seem weak in the face of pressure from Hezbollah.

4. Decreased Arab voter turnout: The most recent Knesset elections saw significant voter turnout. Jewish voter turnout rose to 73 percent, which is the highest it has been since 1999, spurred primarily by fears of a sixth Knesset election within a four-year period. This contributed to the victory of right-wing parties. However, calls to boycott the elections found significant traction among Arab Israelis. Arab voter turnout was only 58 percent, which was the product of Arab Israeli frustration with the policies of successive Israeli governments. It also reflects a lack of hope in the ability to enact real change from within the Israeli government in the way that the United Arab List had imagined. There has also been significant fragmentation among Arab political parties. In recent elections, the Joint List split into two blocs: Ta’al, led by Ahmad Tibi, and Hadash, led by Ayman Odeh. There is also Balad, led by MP Sami Abu Shehadeh. After the Joint List split into two blocs, there were three Arab joint lists in the Israeli elections since the United Arab List, led by Mansour Abbas, had previously split off from the Joint List in the 2021 elections.

It is worth noting that the splintering of Arab political parties has resulted in their taking notably fewer seats in the Knesset. When the parties functioned as a single bloc within the Joint List in September 2019, they came in third in the Knesset elections with 13 seats, and again took 15 seats in the March 2020 elections. This marked the highest Arab representation in the history of the Knesset. However, given the current fissures among Arab political lists, the parties took only 10 seats: the United Arab List took 5 seats, while Hadash and Ta’al took 5 seats.

Various Repercussions

Netanyahu is expected to quickly form a right-wing government composed solely of Likud and far-right parties. This will have various domestic and foreign policy consequences, including the following:

1. Forming a more stable right-wing government: Based on the final election results that showed Netanyahu’s camp (composed of Likud and right-wing parties) taking 64 seats in the Knesset, Netanyahu should have no problem forming the next government. In theory, negotiations over forming the new government should go smoothly. These negotiations have often been full of surprises. After five Knesset elections in a four-year period, Israel now expects to form a purely right-wing government. This could contribute significantly to the long-term stability of the government after years of heterogeneous coalition governments.

2. Decreased likelihood that Netanyahu will be tried for “moral turpitude” charges: Benjamin Netanyahu has been caught up in various legal battles after being accused of corruption and receiving bribes. Since his camp took 64 seats in the Knesset, they are expected to hold increase sway over Israeli domestic politics. This has prompted many observers to express concerns that Netanyahu could try to pass legislation to end charges against him or to remove the current public prosecutor and appoint someone else in his stead. It seems that concerns about a constitutional crisis could lead Netanyahu to make a deal to mitigate the accusations against him, and to limit these to minor charges without anything on the scale of “moral turpitude.”

It is worth noting that Ben-Gvir has made statements indicating that he will call for ex post facto legislation allowing Netanyahu to avoid prosecution for corruption charges. Bezalel Smotrich has also previously advocated for completely reforming the justice system in order to eliminate crimes of fraud and breach of trust from the criminal code.

3. Rising tensions in the Middle East: It is likely that Netanyahu’s return will exacerbate tensions in the Middle East, especially given Netanyahu’s opposition to talks with Iran. In the coming period we could see further Israeli penetration of Iran and escalating threats towards Iran, as well as an increase in the number of Israeli airstrikes in Syria.

Although Lebanese Caretaker Prime Minister Najib Mikati stated that the US had given assurances that it would protect Lebanon’s maritime border agreement with Israel if former conservative Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu won a majority in the Knesset elections, this will nevertheless be a tense issue in the coming period. This is especially true given that Netanyahu had threatened that he would “neutralize” the border agreement in the same way he had done with the Oslo Accords.

It also appears that Jordanian-Israeli relations will be strained, especially since there have been many reports of Netanyahu warning Jordan against intervening in the Knesset elections on behalf of the Lapid camp. Jordan also seems genuinely concerned about Netanyahu’s attempts to revive the so-called “deal of the century” and to pursue further escalation in Jerusalem. This threatens to undermine Hashemite custodianship of holy sites in Jerusalem.

4. Reduced prospects for peace with Palestinians: Based on the recent election results, it appears that Israel is heading towards forming one of the most right-wing governments in the country’s history. This government will consist primarily of the religious Zionist bloc led by Itamar Ben-Gvir and Bezalel Smotrich, who hold racist and extremist views. This could further erode an already narrow window for peace with Palestinians, especially given the rise of anti-Arab rhetoric in Israeli society.

Extremist figures such as Itamar Ben-Gvir and Bezalel Smotrich are also very likely to assume key ministerial posts. Ben-Gvir has previously indicated that he intends to ask for the role of minister of public security, the office which oversees the police, while Netanyahu has said that Ben-Gvir is indeed a strong candidate for the position. This could lead an unprecedented spike in repression of and tensions with Palestinians, especially given Ben-Gvir’s extremely hostile and extremist views and his incitement against Palestinians and Arabs inside the Green Line. Palestinian Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh stated that the Israeli election results had not produced a partner for peace.

5. Renewed conflict with the US: Despite the strategic alliance between Washington and Tel Aviv, Netanyahu’s return to office is likely to lead to renewed conflict with the Democratic US administration. Netanyahu and Barack Obama previously dealt with various conflicts when Biden was vice-president. These disputes primarily center around Netanyahu’s strong ties with former US President Donald Trump, his opposition to the Iran nuclear deal, his stance on the war in Ukraine, and his strong ties with the Russian president. There is also disagreement between the US and Israeli administrations regarding how to resolve the Palestinian issue. The Biden administration supports a two-state solution and opposes the expansion of Israeli settlements in the West Bank. Netanyahu is likely to pursue expansion of settlements when he returns to office.

The rise of right-wing extremist parties also increases the likelihood that some of their leaders could assume important ministerial posts, especially Ben-Gvir, and Washington might oppose such appointments. After the preliminary Israeli election results were announced, a US official indicated that it would be difficult for Washington to work with Ben-Gvir as a minister in the Israeli government.

A Continuing Cycle

In conclusion, it appears that the region will face another round of tensions as Netanyahu returns to power and right-wing extremist settler parties take the reins in Tel Aviv. This is likely to provoke increase tensions with Palestinians and curtail opportunities for peace, while also increasing friction between Tel Aviv and Tehran, especially given the decreased likelihood of a nuclear deal at the moment. It is expected that Arab countries will be reluctant to sign further peace agreements with Tel Aviv in light of the new government’s right-wing settler policies. These Israeli leaders do not seem to care about provoking the anger of Arab countries as their extremist parties constantly proclaim “Death to Arabs”!
Menan Khater – InterRegional for Strategic Analysis

SAKHRI Mohamed
SAKHRI Mohamed

I hold a bachelor's degree in political science and international relations as well as a Master's degree in international security studies, alongside a passion for web development. During my studies, I gained a strong understanding of key political concepts, theories in international relations, security and strategic studies, as well as the tools and research methods used in these fields.

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