Israeli President Isaac Herzog announced last week that he is assigning the task of forming a new government to former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu following consultations with leaders of all political parties elected to Parliament in the 1 November election.
Mr. Netanyahu, a polarising figure at the best of times, has since lost no time in announcing he will be a “Prime Minister for all” and has begun hectic negotiations with allies of his party (Likud) to fill up Cabinet posts. The return of Mr. Netanyahu as Prime Minister ~ he has now emerged the winner in a record five general elections, more than any other politician in Israel’s history ~ is likely to end the political impasse in the country, but it also signals a resurgence of the political-religious right as exemplified by the ultranationalist leader Mr. Itamar Ben-Gvir, once convicted of racism, emerging as kingmaker.
The establishment left-wing party Meretz will have no presence in the Knesset (parliament) for the time since 1992. Of the 120 seats in parliament, the center-right Likud won 32 while outgoing Prime Minister Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid came in second with 24 seats. But, Likud’s coalition partner Religious Zionism, headed by Mr. Ben-Gvir and his colleague Mr. Bezalel Smotrich, won 14 seats.
It more than doubled its tally on the back of a hard-line Zionist message articulated aggressively by the gun-toting Mr. Ben-Gvir. Mr. Netanyahu’s other coalition partners, the ultra-Orthodox party United Torah Judaism and the religious Sephardi party Shas are community-based political organisations interested primarily in controlling the Jewish religious establishment.
In such a scenario, for all Mr. Netanyahu’s efforts to portray his agenda as inclusive and his iteration that Likud will not be under pressure from the extremist parties he is in bed with, the influence of the religious right on policy is likely to be substantive. Religious Zionism in power, a commentator notes, means vast negative implications for the LGBTQ community, secular citizens, and Palestinians.
The concern is that Mr. Ben-Gvir once dismissed as a “fringe element” by the traditional center-right, is now increasingly considered mainstream. He is a Kahanist, a disciple of Meir Kahane, a rabbi who wanted to strip Arab Israelis of citizenship.
Mr. BenGvir and Mr. Smotrich are proponents of the settler movement and their presence in government could mean the expansion of Jewish settlements in the West Bank. Religious Zionism’s policy of zero tolerance on law and order has in recent times translated into its leaders urging police to fire on unarmed stone-throwing Palestinian protestors. The party’s demand for the interior ministry is considered essential for it to further its agenda of doubling down on keeping Israel a Jewish state with any move towards secularisation of society and the expansion of rights for gender and religious minorities to be resisted at all costs.
Israel’s staunchest ally, the USA, has made its displeasure clear about the likes of Mr. Ben-Gvir. “Look at his history, his actions, his statements… This is not someone we want to see as part of the government,” a US official said. Mr. Netanyahu, who has enjoyed a close relationship with successive US administrations, will need to perform the balancing act of his career if he wants to stay Prime Minister without drawing global condemnation and ire.