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A year and a half after the most diverse coalition in Israeli history ousted him from office, the indomitable Benjamin Netanyahu is back.
Belying his age, at 73 Netanyahu again proved himself the most indefatigable of campaigners, crisscrossing the country in his “Bibi bus,” maximizing the resonance of his social media platforms, blitzing sympathetic media outlets with interviews, and exhorting every last potential supporter to come out and vote.
Astute in marshaling his allies, he brokered a merger between Bezalel Smotrich and Itamar Ben Gvir on the far right, and campaigned among the ultra-Orthodox as well, helping his reliable Shas and United Torah Judaism partners to an unprecedentedly strong showing.
He was helped by the strange complacency of Yair Lapid’s campaign, with the now-outgoing prime minister signally failing to mirror Netanyahu in unifying Labor and Meretz on the left, neglecting to field prominent candidates who might appeal to moderate Orthodox Jews, and watching helplessly as the Joint List of mainly Arab parties splintered still further — leaving three political groupings competing against each other for the Arab vote.
But Netanyahu’s personal comeback, remarkable though it is, is only part of the story of these elections.
The more fateful shift marked by Tuesday’s vote is the elevation of the foundational principle of Israel as a Jewish state above that other foundational principle of Israel as a democratic state. The parties for which those two core values have equal weight, or for which the democratic imperative outweighs our country’s Jewish centrality, were soundly beaten, with Israel’s founding party Labor on the brink of obliteration and Meretz, at time of writing, wiped out.
The ultra-Orthodox parties, with their all-male Knesset members, rose. And so too, in particular, did Religious Zionism — led by Smotrich, who ultimately seeks an Israel run according to the laws of the Torah, and Ben Gvir, whose Otzma Yehudit’s most recent political manifesto advocates the annexation of the biblical Judea and Samaria for an enlarged sovereign Jewish state in which West Bank Palestinians would be denied equal rights.
Israel’s much-criticized electoral system does enable a pretty representative reflection of the electorate’s mindset. And the results show an overwhelming backlash against the Bennett-Lapid government, most especially among religious Zionists, who felt betrayed by Naftali Bennett’s decision to take their votes into a coalition with Lapid, the left and Ra’am, and who, on Tuesday, voted to ensure there could be no repeat of what they saw as that abuse.
Ben Gvir, the Meir Kahane disciple whose rise to national ultra-prominence was engineered by Netanyahu, has been magnanimous in victory in these first few hours after his elevation. He can afford to be; the flux of Israeli political history is with him. He has promised, from his anticipated ministerial position — possibly in charge of public security — to work on behalf of “everyone, including those who detest me.”
But it is Ben Gvir, not Netanyahu, who electrified a sizable proportion of the electorate and is the long-term victor of these elections, along with ally-rival Smotrich. And while TV pundits lined up Wednesday morning to suggest that we would see a “more moderate” iteration of these two once they are part of the governing establishment rather than its critics, that assessment belies their own behavior and declared goals.
Ben Gvir was brandishing his gun and urging Border Police officers to shoot at Arab stone-throwers just days ago, and interrupted his own victory speech Tuesday night to pay tribute to the radical settler Rabbi Dov Lior and to his former political partner Bentzi Gopstein, the head of the racist and homophobic Lehava organization. Smotrich, who denied Netanyahu a coalition in 2021 by vetoing any reliance on the Islamist Ra’am party, vowed afresh Tuesday night to advance his plans for judicial “reform” — plans that render the judiciary subservient to the political majority.
In his exuberant address to Likud supporters Tuesday night, Netanyahu promised to govern on behalf of all the citizens of Israel, lower the flames of political discourse, and heal Israel’s internal rifts. But the man who mainstreamed Ben Gvir, and who relentlessly dismisses any and all who oppose him as leftists who endanger the state, is hardly suited to do so. (On Monday afternoon, he insinuated in an Army Radio interview that Benny Gantz had blithely endangered the lives of soldiers in order not to hurt Palestinians, reducing the former military chief of staff and outgoing defense minister to near-incoherent rage. When Gantz went to the Western Wall for pre-election prayer that evening, a small knot of protesters denounced him as a murderer.)
In the past, nonetheless, Netanyahu has preferred to govern as the consensual figure in a coalition with parties to the left and right of him, and to steer a non-adventurist diplomatic and security path. But this election’s arithmetic and his own track record in jettisoning coalition partners means the only government he can assemble — the most hawkish in Israel’s history — is one in which he will be battling against the Religious Zionism tiger he unleashed, with its hardline ostensible security panaceas.
The outgoing coalition, narrowly and desperately cobbled together to exclude Netanyahu, left swaths of the Israeli electorate feeling unrepresented, even oppressed; the incoming coalition will do the same from the other side of the political spectrum. And as the balance continues to shift from left to right in this increasingly polarized nation, it will take an unforeseeable change in the Israeli reality for the pendulum to swing back.
Over recent years, moving with an Israeli mainstream rendered increasingly hawkish by Palestinian terrorism, the demonstrable failure of territorial withdrawal, and last year’s deadly riots in mixed Jewish-Arab cities, Netanyahu shifted away from embracing even the principle of a two-state solution, however unlikely at present, that would ensure Israel can maintain both its Jewish and its democratic nature. Significantly, in his speech Tuesday night, he stressed the country’s Jewish identity but could not, or dared not, bring himself to utter the word “democracy.”
The people, he said, “want a Jewish state.
“A state that respects its citizens,” he allowed, “but this is a Jewish state, our national state, that we dreamed of and fought for, and spilled seas of tears and blood to achieve.”
Meanwhile, Ben Gvir was being hailed at his Otzma Yehudit victory event as “the next prime minister.”
“I’m 46,” he demurred mildly. “Not prime minister yet.”
As The Times of Israel’s political correspondent, I spend my days in the Knesset trenches, speaking with politicians and advisers to understand their plans, goals and motivations.
I'm proud of our coverage of this government's plans to overhaul the judiciary, including the political and social discontent that underpins the proposed changes and the intense public backlash against the shakeup.
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