he pendulum in Israel politics has swung to the opposite direction with vengeance in just one year. A great experiment in the history of the country in inclusive governance comprising Right, Left, centre and Israeli Arabs has miserably failed and is now being replaced by another first ever in its history – a government by a coalition that includes Far-right and ultra-orthodox. The election – fifth in less than four years – has not only brought back to power Benjamin Netanyahu, known by his pet name Bibi, ousted a year back, but turned Israel dangerously Far-right. This is a trend gaining ground across the world and even in nearby Europe, even though Left politics is getting firmly entrenched in one South American country after another, the latest being Brazil.
In fact, Israel has been drifting Right for years. According to one estimate about 60% of the Israeli electorate is Right-wing against 12-14% voting for the Left and the remainder belonging to the so-called centre. But while polling had clearly indicated that the Religious Zionism – a bloc of three extremist parties that collectively embody racist, Jewish supremacist and anti-Arab sentiments – would do well in the election, the extent of their success has surpassed all expectations.
The elections this time were fought primarily to ascertain whether Netanyahu, who is still facing trial for corruption, has the popular mandate to recapture power. The results confirm his return as Prime Minister once more with a slender majority in the 120-seat Knesset (Israeli Parliament), chalked up with the help of the Far-right and rabidly anti-Arab, anti-Palestinian outfits. Such a fallout is sending shockwaves both to the Middle East and the rest of the world. The triumph of the racist Far-right signals the new government may have to acquiesce to the Religious Zionism’s agenda of deportation of ‘disloyal’ Palestinian citizens of Israel and the annexation of the occupied West Bank. The strategy adopted by Netanyahu by joining hands with these groups has greatly helped his extremist allies become part of mainstream politics. Itamar Ben-Gvir, the new icon for anti-Arab forces, was a follower of the banned Kach terrorist group, with a conviction for inciting racism. For years he was dismissed as politically untouchable. After the recent election he now controls the third-largest political force in Israel, thanks to Netanyahu who is expected to appoint him as a senior minister.
Such a scenario has already caused alarm across the world. The Joe Biden administration has made it clear that it will have no truck with Ben-Gvir. Such a stand, however, does not seem to cut much ice with Netanyahu who is hoping for the return of Donald Trump as US President in 2024 on the wave of a Republican resurgence. The mid-term poll in the US gives encouraging indications for such an eventuality as Biden’s popularity has dangerously nosedived.
Netanyahu, undoubtedly, is also too seasoned a hardliner to dance to the tune of the Far-right. He needs this coalition for his own survival. His immediate agenda is to get a law passed to postpone or even cancel his trial. A guilty verdict or a plea bargain that would drive him away from politics will cause an existential crisis for him. He is also bent on packing his men in the Supreme Court in order to make a mockery of Israeli democracy and firmly establish his grip on power.
He may, however, find it difficult to implement his other agenda of thwarting Iran’s nuclear ambitions through airstrikes at Iran’s strategic installations. His efforts to block the Biden administration’s plan to clinch a nuclear deal with Iran may not succeed. This is because the US at this stage is unlikely to invite fresh troubles in the Middle East as its hands are already full.
Mohammad Shtayyeh, Prime Minister of the Palestinian Authority, said the results “confirm that we have no partner in Israel for peace.” He may sound too alarmist. The only encouraging possibility, as Israel watchers point out, is that Netanyahu may fall back on the coalition forged by the outgoing government of the caretaker Prime Minister Yair Lapid’s Right and centre bloc which has made a respectable showing.