Benjamin Netanyahu is set to return to power in Israel for the fifth time, with the most ultra-far-right coalition in the country’s history.
Israel’s fifth election in four years has given Benjamin Netanyahu a fifth term in power in what looks set to be the most far-right government in the country’s history.
Netanyahu, who governed Israel for over a decade, was ousted from power last year by a broad coalition that included a patchwork of parties opposing him – marking the first time an Arab party joined an Israeli government.
With more than 90 percent of the votes counted, Netanyahu’s right-wing bloc appeared decisively in the lead with 65 seats. His Likud party holds the largest share of the vote and 32 seats, followed by outgoing prime minister’s Yair Lapid party, Yesh Atid, with 24.
But the real breakthrough was achieved by the ultranationalist Religious Zionism, which got 14 seats and will be able to pull the strings in Netanyahu’s governing coalition.
The result gives Netanyahu’s coalition a comfortable majority in Israel’s parliament, the Knesset, where 61 seats are needed to achieve a majority.
Some smaller parties such as the left-wing Meretz and the Arab left-wing secular Balad, which advocates for the rights of Palestinian citizens of Israel, have failed to make the electoral threshold and gain at least four seats to enter the Knesset – despite a stronger-than-expected showing by the latter.
How did we end up here?
In June 2021, Yair Lapid and his coalition partner Naftali Bennett ended Netanyahu's 12-year tenure by putting together a broad but flimsy eight-party coalition that included liberal, right-wing as well as Arab parties.
A year later, however, the coalition lost its razor-thin majority to defections. The government dissolved parliament, opening the way for yet another election. Then prime minister Bennett stepped aside, and Lapid – who had been foreign minister – took on the role of caretaker PM.
Netanyahu’s far-right allies
The large showing by the far-right, ultranationalist Religious Zionism faction – led by Bezalel Smotrich and Itamar Ben-Gvir – will exert huge influence on Netanyahu’s coalition.
Ben-Gvir, a lawyer who first made a name for himself by defending young Jewish extremists suspected of terror and hate crimes, was first ushered into power by Netanyahu himself last year, in a bid to appeal to voters from the settler movement. In 2007, Ben-Gvir was convicted of racist incitement and of supporting an organisation called Kach, that both Israel and the US have blacklisted as a terror group.
Highest turnout in more than two decades
The election saw the highest voter turnout since 1999, with more than 70 percent of citizens casting their vote.
The openly anti-Arab Ben-Gvir drew his support from a pool of previously non-voting citizens, beefing up the prime minister’s coalition.
Clash with the Biden administration
The rightward shift in the Israeli government might set the stage for possible conflict with the Biden administration, as well as Israel’s supporters in the United States – who will see it as further dimming hopes for a resolution to the conflict with Palestinians.
Two US officials told the Israeli press the Biden administration might refuse to engage with Ben-Gvir, who is expected to be a senior minister in the future government. While no decision has been made yet, the officials said a boycott of the far-right politician is likely. If it happens, it would be unprecedented and put considerable strain on US-Israel relations.
Ben-Gvir lives in one of the West Bank’s most hardline settlements, Kiryat Arba, and is a strong proponent of settlement construction – which hampers the two-state solution supported by the international community.
Deteriorating situation in the West Bank
Meanwhile, tension in the West Bank has progressively escalated in the past months, reaching a peak in recent weeks as the Israeli army lays siege to the northern West Bank city of Nablus and surrounding villages, where a new Palestinian armed group has recently emerged. The group, called the Lion's Den, made up of young people apparently unaffiliated with existing Palestinian factions, has claimed responsibility for several attacks against the Israeli army in the West Bank.