It took five elections to finally break the deadlock that has paralyzed Israeli politics for over three years. On November 1, a decisive winner at last emerged when the parties allied with former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu secured a majority in parliament, claiming 64 out of 120 seats and ending the tenure of a short-lived, ungainly coalition established only in June 2021. That government featured eight parties (right-wing, left-wing, centrist, and even Islamist), two prime ministers, and ultimately, irreconcilable ideological divisions. Naftali Bennett, who led a small right-wing party, served as prime minister for just over a year before turning over the top job, by agreement, to the centrist Yair Lapid this past June.
It was an inherently unstable situation, and Netanyahu and his allies now hope to provide stability; they can form a coalition of parties mostly aligned over a set of far-right ideas about Israeli society, foreign policy, and the Palestinian issue. The exact contours of the new government are not final, but one thing is certain: Israel has entered uncharted territory. The only question is just how far to the right Netanyahu is willing to go.
A PREDICTABLE SURPRISE
From the moment elections were called in June 2022, nearly every poll showed the country headed for yet another electoral deadlock. So when exit polls suggested that Netanyahu’s allies would achieve a majority, it felt like a dramatic development. But it should hardly have come as a surprise.
The number of Israelis who identify as right-wing has risen steadily in recent years to over half of all adults, including 64 percent of the Jewish population, which votes at a much higher rate than does the country’s Arab population. Netanyahu’s Likud Party performed only marginally better than it did in 2021, winning fewer than 50,000 new votes and securing 32 seats, compared with the 30 it holds in the outgoing Knesset. But the ultra-Orthodox party, Shas, did somewhat better than anticipated, winning 11 seats. And the biggest news of the election was no surprise at all: for weeks, polls had repeatedly and accurately predicted that the Jewish ultranationalist party, Religious Zionism, was set to vault from six to 14 parliamentary seats—and it did, adding over 290,000 votes to its 2021 tally. Although this party ran as an amalgam of factions that may not stay together, it currently forms the second-largest list in Netanyahu’s bloc. Its leaders, including the pistol-waving anti-Arab provocateur Itamar Ben-Gvir, have already indicated their high-level ministerial ambitions.
Negotiations are well underway and a coalition could form within weeks. It is theoretically possible that Netanyahu might try to persuade one of the more right-leaning parties or individuals from the opposition to join his government, perhaps at a later time, but that possibility seems remote at present. In 2020, Benny Gantz, who is now the outgoing defense minister, led the opposition to Netanyahu before deciding to join a unity government after a close election. It ended terribly for Gantz; Netanyahu evaded a deal the two had made to rotate as prime minister, making Gantz look like he was duped—an outcome that many pundits and voters had predicted. Coalition promises are often broken in Israel, but Gantz swears he won’t join with Netanyahu again. And talk of a unity government featuring Likud and the larger centrist parties but excluding the far-right party has gained no traction so far.
Israel, therefore, appears to be on the road to a “full right” coalition with four parties pulling Netanyahu further in their ideological direction. It could be Israel’s most extreme right-wing government ever. In two important areas—foreign policy and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict—the two possible versions of Netanyahu’s next government will probably differ from each other only by degrees and might not even differ substantively from the outgoing government. But on essential domestic questions, including the nature of the country’s democratic institutions, the differences will be very consequential for Israeli society and the Israeli state.
Despite Netanyahu’s claim that the “change” government of the past year was left-wing, it did very little to alter Netanyahu’s policies on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The outgoing government took minor steps toward economic development for Palestinians and favored “shrinking the conflict,” a phrase Bennett borrowed from the author Micah Goodman to describe reducing immediate sources of friction while avoiding a comprehensive political resolution. That policy hardly differed from what Netanyahu called “conflict management,” which meant containing occasional escalations and allowing incremental improvements in the material conditions in the Palestinian territories without seeking an end to the conflict. Both Netanyahu and the Bennett/Lapid change government also expanded Israel’s occupation in ways that make a two–state solution more remote than ever: Bennett and Lapid deepened Israeli control over the West Bank, squeezing Palestinians out of Area C, the largest chunk of the territory. This was a continuation of the approach perfected by Netanyahu, who dabbled with de jure annexation of the West Bank in 2020 but apparently concluded that a de facto version would draw less international opprobrium. During their year in power, Bennett and Lapid seemed to reach to the same conclusion. Both governments kept Gaza heavily isolated, with tight Israeli control over the movement of people and goods—like all Israeli governments since 2007, when the closure policy began. The outgoing government increased work permits somewhat for Gazans, a confidence-building measure with no specific end goal.
Netanyahu’s return might seem to augur a shift in Israeli foreign policy. Lapid had recommitted Israel to the family of democracies, at least in his rhetoric, whereas since 2009, Netanyahu has nurtured relations with authoritarian regimes in countries ranging from Azerbaijan to Chad and normalized relations with nondemocratic Arab countries via the U.S.-brokered Abraham Accords. He forged friendships with strongmen leaders such as Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and U.S. President Donald Trump and maintained a cooperative relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin—even touting his friendship with the Kremlin dictator in large billboards during one of the earlier election campaigns.
Israel has entered uncharted territory.
But the biggest global policy challenge at the moment, Russia’s war on Ukraine, did not exist when Netanyahu last led the country, and there are signs that Netanyahu does not plan to break significantly from current policy on the issue. Bennett, who was prime minister when the war began, made the fateful decision to prioritize Israel’s understandings with Russia, purportedly to preserve Israel’s room for maneuver in Syria, where Russia mostly controls the airspace that Israel needs for its regular airstrikes against Iranian proxies and their assets in the country. To date, Israel has provided no military aid to Ukraine, only humanitarian support.
In a recent interview on MSNBC, Netanyahu issued an exceedingly rare nod to his bitter rivals, calling the current government’s Ukraine policy “prudent.” On another occasion, he spoke of “looking into” the question of military aid for Kyiv, with no further elaboration and in guarded language. Netanyahu has also warned that the war threatens to become a global conflict among nuclear powers and must not spread. That point echoes arguments made in favor of negotiations, which would presumably result in Ukrainian territorial concessions to Russia. If Netanyahu supports that, there would be a logic of consistency to his position: after all, Israel, too, has conquered territory that it never plans to return.
Days before the most recent elections, Lapid’s government signed a breakthrough deal with Lebanon resolving a long dispute over maritime boundaries. The agreement will allow gas exploration and extraction projects to advance on both sides; Israeli security experts and economists have lauded it. During negotiations for the deal, Netanyahu raged against what he called a “historic surrender” and made grandiose promises not to honor the agreement if he won. But he seems unlikely to follow through on that threat, and since the agreement was finalized, he has softened his stance.
THE DANGER WITHIN
Israelis might see continuity on foreign policy but probably not on domestic issues, especially those regarding fundamental institutions. In his fifth term in office, Netanyahu could change the face of the country permanently. The Religious Zionism Party has released sweeping plans to curtail Israel’s judicial branch and undermine any meaningful constraints on the government’s power. These plans follow a years-long right-wing campaign to delegitimize the judiciary, an effort that Netanyahu joined following investigations of his conduct that led to indictments on corruption charges in 2020. Netanyahu has denied the charges, portraying the trials as political persecution and an “attempted coup,” and has described judicial figures as belonging to the “deep state.”
Religious Zionism’s legal plan calls to nullify one of the key crimes with which Netanyahu has been charged, although the party denies that it is trying to protect him personally. The plan also proposes establishing near-total political control over judicial appointments and a new law that would allow the Knesset to easily override a Supreme Court ruling striking down legislation that violates the rights provided in Israel’s Basic Laws, which function as the country’s bill of rights.
Netanyahu’s record of cultivating illiberal and even antidemocratic foreign partners speaks for itself.
Such changes would remove the few obstacles that remain to legalizing West Bank settlements that even Israel considers unlawful and annexing Palestinian territory. They would also weaken civic opposition to government policy by limiting citizens’ access to the Supreme Court, which doubles as Israel’s High Court of Justice for claims against the state. The three religious parties supporting Netanyahu seek to ensure the grip of religious forces on public life, for example by tightening ultra-Orthodox control over kosher regulations in public institutions, blocking any attempt to expand Israel’s minimal public transportation on the Sabbath and shutting down existing commerce and entertainment on Saturdays, and blocking any attempt to change decades-old policies that give religious authorities control over family law, for example by introducing civil marriage. Religious Zionism supporters regularly express anti-Arab views, and among their legislators are a number of overt homophobes. Israel is about to enter an era defined by the tyranny of the right-wing majority in politics and the tyranny of the orthodox and ultra-Orthodox minority in society.
Should Netanyahu ever seek to win over any of the parties now in the opposition, he will have to convince them that no new laws will affect the legal proceedings against him and that even if the government pursues genuinely needed judicial reforms, he will avoid the extreme proposals designed to strip away the power of the judiciary. It may be significant that Netanyahu so far plans to assign a minister from his Likud Party to run the justice ministry, rather than offering it to the more extreme parties—although some Likud figures are no less hostile to judicial independence. Reports suggest Netanyahu has agreed in principle to the override law. Still, although he has a personal interest in limiting the reach of the judicial branch, Netanyahu may prefer to avoid irreversibly damaging it.
Netanyahu’s record of cultivating illiberal and even antidemocratic foreign partners speaks for itself, and it is inconceivable that he will return to a viable two-state solution or rein in the occupation of the Palestinian territories. But his government can still decide not to make war on Israel’s institutions. As flawed as they are, Israel’s civil society and judicial branch are the country’s most important arenas for democratic dissent and contestation—and the only true checks and balances in a system that places few limits on the power of its leaders.