Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu is set to become Israel’s PM, after the current round of elections in Israel, the fifth in four years. The election witnessed the highest turnout, with around 72% voting. This was more than in any of the last four elections.
Results declared indicate that Netanyahu will manage a majority in the Israeli Parliament, the Knesset. Netanyahu’s coalition is set to get a majority with around 64 seats in the 120-member Knesset.
His Likud Party, with 32 seats, will be talking to the Ultra-Religious parties with 18 seats and the ultra-nationalist Otzma Yehudit (Religious Zionism Party) with 14 seats. Netanyahu’s new potential coalition looks more cohesive ideologically but more right-wing. Other parties in the coalition will be like-minded parties like Shas winning 11 seats and the United Torah Judaism winning 7 seats.
A Marvellous Feat
I had witnessed Netanyahu become PM for the first time in 1996 when I was serving in the Indian Embassy in Tel Aviv. He has since been PM from 1996-1999 and then again from 2009 to 2021. He has been the longest serving Israeli PM.
This is a stunning comeback for Netanyahu, 17 months after he was ejected by an unlikely Centrist-Leftist coalition led by a new party Yesh Atid. Lapid’s coalition had included Arab parties for the first time in Israel’s history.
Israeli Arabs constitute around 20% of Israel’s population. They remain bitterly opposed to Netanyahu and his right-wing and ultra-nationalist policies.
The Arab vote was split in the current election. In the 2015 elections, the Arab parties had fought together and won 15 seats, a record in Israel’s elections. Arab disunity has brought down their seat count to 10. Opposition disunity also contributed to Netanyahu’s victory
The Centrist bloc led by PM Yair Lapid’s coalition managed to bag 52 seats. Lapid’s party, Yesh Atid, managed 24 seats which ate into the vote bank of the Centrist-Leftist parties. Lapid has conceded defeat. Itamar Ben-Gvir and Bezalel Smotrich, leaders of the Zionist party, are known for their anti-Arab views and advocating deportation of politicians and others who are “disloyal” to the country.
Ben-Gvir is a follower of the avowedly racist Rabbi Meir Kahane who was banned from the Knesset and his Kach party labelled a terrorist group by the Americans. Kahane was assassinated in New York in 1990. Ben-Gvir is popular among his supporters and is seen as suave and media-friendly.
Controversies and Popularity
73-year-old Netanyahu is not above controversy himself. He is still embroiled in a corruption case with charges of fraud, bribery and breach of trust.
Netanyahu is unpopular among liberal and left-leaning Israelis for his hard-line views and firm opposition to an independent and sovereign Palestinian State.
He also supports building Jewish Settlement on Palestinian territories on the West Bank. The consensus international view is that these Settlements are illegal under international law.
Despite the Oslo Accords of the 1990s, a truly independent Palestinian State, supported globally, has remained a mirage, though the Biden Administration’s official position is supportive of a Palestinian State.
The losing coalition of Lapid had a slim majority and was backed by an Arab Party, a first in Israel’s history. Israel has a long history of coalition governments ever since its creation in 1948. Its electoral system based on proportional representation, wherein political parties contest elections on the basis of list of candidates.
Any party getting a minimum 3.25% of the votes are allotted seats based on the votes polled. Parties getting below the benchmark figure of 3.25% fail to enter the Knesset.
Netanyahu’s government will largely continue Israel’s policies. Hence, in spite of opposition to the recently concluded “Maritime Boundary Agreement” with Lebanon, Netanyahu may not reject it because the Biden Administration has backed the agreement.
The right-wing shift in Israel’s politics means less hope for a settlement with the Palestinians and a more troubled relationship with the current American administration. Palestinian PM Muhammad Shtayyeh called the Israeli election result as a natural drift buoyed by growing extremism and racism in Israel.
Internally, Netanyahu’s government has plans for some judicial engineering and passing legislation to annul Judicial decisions that are politically unpalatable. The aim would be to eliminate criminal charges against both Netanyahu and Smotrich. The latter has the dubious distinction of being the most radical politician in Israel’s history.
Netanyahu’s relationship with the Biden Administration will be not be a smooth ride. The Abraham Accords and the I2U2 (India-Israel-UAE-USA) may come under stress because of the Palestinian issue. Arab countries which have normalised ties with Israel, following the Abraham Accords may find themselves takin critical positions on Netanyahu’s right-wing politics and anti-Arab rhetoric of the right-wing parties in Netanyahu’s coalition. The one mitigating factor will be Iran which had brought about the Israeli-Arab strategic convergence which led to the Abraham Accords.
PM Modi has tweeted his congratulations to Netanyahu and promised to continue the vibrant bilateral partnership. Both Modi and Netanyahu had established a close personal rapport. Modi was the first Indian PM to visit Israel and Netanyahu was the second Israeli PM to visit India.
Though India recognised Israel in 1950, diplomatic ties were established only in 1992 after the Oslo Peace Accords were signed. Since then, India-Israel ties have achieved a stage where there is bipartisan political consensus in both countries. India and Israel marked 30 years of diplomatic ties in 2022.
Bilateral trade has grown and both sides are now engaging in negotiations on a FTA. Bilateral technology and defence ties have become defining pillars of this relationship. The I2 U2 group is concentrating on clean energy and food security.
Bilateral trade has touched $ 8 billion in 2022. Though diversified, trade is still heavily tilted towards diamonds which accounts for 40% of trade. Israeli investments in India are mainly in high-tech and agriculture sectors. Indian investments have been in Haifa Port which is a hub for shipping in the region. Software and Pharma are other sectors where Indian companies have invested in Israel.
A lot has changed in Israel since 2018 when Netanyahu was charged with corruption. The COVID pandemic, conflict in Gaza and repeated elections resulting from political instability. The next step in Israel’s government formation is likely to be a hard-fought battle for who gets to control vital Ministries. Netanyahu’s comeback will certainly be watched very carefully as he has the reputation of putting his stamp on regional policies that can rock the boat in a volatile region.
(The author is a former secretary at the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) and former ambassador; he is the founder-director of DeepStrat and a visiting fellow at ORF, Delhi.)