Netanyahu’s Challenge: Managing Contradictions at Home and Abroad

When Benjamin Netanyahu left the office of prime minister in June 2021, after being the longest-serving head of government in Israel, not many had anticipated his swift return to power. If not the end of his long political career, starting as leader of the opposition (LoP) in 1993 and two stints as prime minister in 1996-99 and 2009-21, most had expected the path for Netanyahu’s return to be extremely difficult. Corruption charges, court proceedings, and an eclectic coalition of opponents and friends-turned-foes bent on keeping him out of power would have probably made any other look for an alternative career. But not Bibi, as he is popularly referred to. After losing the race to premiership in the March 2021 elections to his former protégé Naftali Bennett, Netanyahu started plotting his return. He took over as LoP, fought off efforts from within Likud to oust him as party head and attended court proceedings appearing resolute on regaining power. And, after a 16-month gap, Bibi is back at the helm.

Not to discount the fact that the right-center-left-Arab coalition of eight parties formed to keep him out of power was marred in internal bickering and divisions. This was to be expected given the vast ideological and policy differences and the fact that except for their anti-Netanyahu stance, the coalition partners could hardly agree on anything. And, this also proved to be their undoing.

Leading a Right-wing Coalition

Once Bennett resigned after just over a year in office in June 2022, and Yair Lapid took over as caretaker Prime Minister, Netanyahu was able to bring together a broad-based coalition of right-wing nationalists and religious parties and mounted a campaign on providing a strong, stable, and effective government. While Lapid focused on the achievements of the coalition government over the past year, Netanyahu and his allies took up issues of national security, problems in the Arab sector, violence in the West Bank and terrorism from Gaza as well as the Iran threat. The right and religious parties rallied around Netanyahu with the slogan Rak Bibi (only Bibi).

Given the history of recent political instability and the fragility of coalition politics, Israel has had five Knesset elections since 2019, one can never be sure of what might transpire next, but the fact that the Likud-led coalition has a clear majority in the Knesset generates hopes for a more stable government. The right-wing religious alliance of the Likud, Religious Zionism, Shas, United Torah Judaism (UTJ) and Jewish Home achieved 49.55 percent votes while the anti-Netanyahu coalition of Yesh Atid, National Unity, Yisrael Beytenu, Ra’am, Hadash-Ta’al, Labor, Meretz and Balad received 48.92 percent of votes. The margin of vote share maybe slim, but the difference in seats given the complex list system followed in the country is bigger. Accordingly, the Likud-led coalition is set to get 64 seats in the Knesset while the anti-Netanyahu coalition led by Lapid gets only 56 seats.[1]

Although Netanyahu has a bigger majority than the last four coalitions, governance might not be as easy. The electorate is deeply divided on several domestic, regional, and international issues, and Netanyahu himself is a divisive figure. His first task would be to keep his ultra-nationalist and orthodox-religious allies in check.

Managing Relations with U.S.

The most significant concern of the international community is the inclusion in the government, and likely in the cabinet, of far-right Religious Zionism, led by Bezalel Smotrich and Itamar Ben Gvir, which emerged as the third largest group in the Knesset. The party and its leaders have been accused of racism and of inciting violence against Arabs and Palestinians. The party also wishes to reform Israel’s justice system and media, which it accuses of targeting the religious and nationalists groups. They are also opposed to a two-state solution and advocate the annexation of the West Bank as part of achieving the historical Eretz Yisrael. These views have made experts caution that Netanyahu will find it difficult to manage relations with allies, including the U.S., especially under the Biden administration which has put issues of human rights as one of its foreign policy priorities. Additionally, the Iranian nuclear threat and conflict with Palestinian groups can also become bones of contention between Washington and Tel Aviv given that these have in the past troubled US-Israel relations.

Experts have also raised apprehensions about the hindrances in Israel’s budding relations with the Arab countries, the fate of the recently signed U.S.-mediated maritime delimitation agreement with Lebanon and the future of the nascent diplomatic breakthrough with Türkiye. The Abraham Accords which Netanyahu signed as Prime Minister with the UAE, Bahrain, Morocco, and Sudan has changed the dynamics of the Arab-Israel conflict and led to opportunities for cooperation and partnership in the Middle East. But the concern is how would an Israeli government that has strong advocates for the annexation of the West Bank manage its relations with the UAE, which at the time of signing the Accords had underlined that normalization prevents annexation of occupied Palestinian lands. It also raises questions on further progress with other Arab countries even though Netanyahu soon after the election declaration said that his government will work for a diplomatic breakthrough with Saudi Arabia.

With Türkiye too, the diplomatic process can be derailed given that President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) are heading into a tough election. Also, the decline in diplomatic and political ties between Türkiye and Israel was based on the Palestinian issue and was presided over by the very same leaders, Netanyahu and Erdoğan. If the two are again at the helm, it might not bode well for a revived diplomatic process. On the agreement with Lebanon, many within Israel have viewed the maritime deal as harmful to Israeli interests, both as a loss of revenue and as providing legitimacy to Hezbollah which is part of the Lebanese government. Hence, if fragments of the new government in Israel decided to raise this issue, this may also cause frictions within and with the US, Lebanon, and ultimately with Hezbollah as well.

Dealing with Iran

On the regional front, Iran is likely to remain a key issue for the new government. Although there is a broad consensus inside Israel on threats posed by Iran, both due to its nuclear program and because of Tehran’s policy of regional militarization through the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and arming of proxies such as Hezbollah and Hamas, the right-wing is more hawkish on use of force while the center-left sees the need for restraint in use of military power. Iran can also likely create friction between the Biden administration and the Netanyahu government, given that a nuclear deal with Iran remains on the table though it is currently not a priority. If and when the Biden administration decides to re-enter into talks with Iran for a nuclear deal, it is likely to face much stronger resistance from Israel under Netanyahu than was the case under Bennet or Lapid.

Moreover, one can expect a more hardline policy on Palestine and a stronger show of force in case of fights and skirmishes. Unlike the outgoing government that focused on being clinical in the use of the military against Palestinian militants and terrorists, the right-wing government led by Netanyahu can be expected to be more muscular. This can cause friction with the Biden administration which prefers a more nuanced approach despite not trying to revive the peace process. There can also be challenges on the issue of the US reviewing its decision to close its consulate in East Jerusalem, one of the promises made by Biden during his campaign but yet to be fulfilled.

Relations with India are unlikely to face any serious challenges under the new government. Indo-Israeli relations have come a long way under Prime Minister Narendra Modi with the hesitation of the past no longer visible in New Delhi. The fact that Modi had an extraordinary working relationship and camaraderie with Netanyahu contributed to the improvement of political and diplomatic ties. But the brief change of government in Israel had hardly led to any drop in the intensity of bilateral ties. If at all, under Netanyahu, the likelihood of the ties taking further wing are stronger.

Notwithstanding the challenges of leading a coalition government with far-right parties, Netanyahu is unlikely to be daunted by the task at hand. His ability to overcome challenges, politics based on personality cult and ideological flexibility are likely to serve him well for now. Barring a conviction in the ongoing corruption cases or an unlikely breakup with his coalition partners, there are remote chances of Netanyahu losing majority and power for the duration of the next Knesset. Not to suggest that it will help heal the deep political divisions currently facing Israel or a smooth ride in relations with new partners in the region and with the U.S., its most important ally. In all likelihood, the Israeli polity will see further divisions, especially on contentious issues that continue to fester, but with a majority coalition in power, Israelis can finally hope for a stable government. But as they say, never say never, when it comes to Israel.

Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of MP-IDSA or the Government of India.

[1] The distribution of seats after the final results is as follows: Likud-32, Yesh Atid-24, Religious Zionism-14, National Unity-12, Shas-11, UTJ-7, Yisrael Beytenu-6, Ra’am-5, Hadash-Ta’al-5 and Labor-4. Other smaller parties including Jewish Home, Meretz and Balad failed to reach the threshold of 3.25 percent.