Benjamin Netanyahu during a campaign event, Tel Aviv, October 30, 2022 (Photo: Getty Images)
In March 2009, nobody could have predicted that Binyamin Netanyahu would still be in office in June 2021, having overtaken David Ben-Gurion as Israel’s longest-serving prime minister two years earlier. In mid-June 2021, those talking about the end of the Netanyahu era, would have been incredulous if told “King Bibi” would be back in a year-and-a-half. In an article published on June 4 last year, this writer had said, “Bibi will loom over Messrs Bennett and Lapid every inch of the way” and waste no effort at attempting a comeback as soon as possible. One-plus year is a long time in politics, especially in a chaotic democracy like Israel, and you can never write Bibi’s political obituary as long as he’s still a part of that politics.
Netanyahu’s unambiguous victory in Tuesday’s (November 1) election, the fifth in four years, ends the 2019-22 political crisis in Israel with Likud winning 32 seats and the rightwing bloc comfortably crossing the majority mark in the 120-member Knesset. The coalition that had replaced Netanyahu in June 2021, led by Yair Lapid and Naftali Bennett, was the most diverse in Israel’s history, ranging from the settler right, the centrist left to even Arab parties. It has been a liberal’s dream but its longevity was always in doubt, as happens when a political formation has no objective in mind except ousting one individual. Bennett, as the first prime minister after Netanyahu’s exit, expectedly curbed his most hawkish instincts but by the time Lapid replaced him, the government was dead in the legislature and a new election had become necessary. It was an umbrella that was bound to leak under its own contradictions.
While Netanyahu’s return with a clear majority restores stability to Israeli politics, the key takeaway from the latest election is in fact the surge of the far-right and the legitimisation of the power of its twin heads Itamar Ben-Gvir and Bezalel Smotrich who lead the Religious Zionist bloc that has won 14 seats. A greater contrast with Lapid’s outgoing coalition couldn’t have been imagined. Ben-Gvir has been convicted earlier as a racist and it’s only of late that his and his supporters’ chants of “Death to Arabs” was ‘sanitised’ to “Death to terrorists”. The man who talks of being the “landlords” of the country again and had recently been filmed brandishing a gun during a clash with Palestinians, wants to be minister of public security and Smotrich reportedly has his eyes on the defence ministry.
Ben-Gvir is an ‘intellectual’ disciple of Meir Kahane whose name is synonymous with the most notorious chapter in Israel’s political history. Kahane, the founder of Kach in 1971, was designated a terrorist by the US and his outfit was banned by Israel. As a matter of fact, the Knesset had to change the law to ensure he could not contest the 1988 election after Kach had won its only seat (Kahane himself) in 1984. Kahane had, among other conspiracies, plotted to blow up the Libyan embassy in Brussels in retaliation for the 1972 Munich massacre. The Central Elections Committee had banned him from contesting in 1984 but that ban was overturned by the Supreme Court, necessitating the passing of a law to prevent racist parties from contesting polls. Between 1984 and 1988, Kahane spoke to empty chambers as he was boycotted across the aisle in the Knesset but without that new law, he might have done lasting damage in the 1988 election against the backdrop of the First Intifada.
Ben-Gvir and his Oztma Yehudit party are uncharted territory for Israel which, ironically, had not put a rightwing government in office till 1977 when Menachem Begin became Herut’s (later merged with Likud) prime minister. But the far-right is a different ballgame altogether and some commentators have pointed out that Netanyahu still has a few options at hand, such as bringing in Benny Gantz and his National Unity with 12 seats to side-line the Ben-Gvir-Smotrich bloc. In theory, he can also invite conservative Arab parties like Ra’am into his coalition and make it more diverse. However, battling charges of corruption and reportedly seeking to amend the law itself to protect himself, Netanyahu will need the firepower of those he had encouraged and supped with on his road back to power. The price of stability can often be high.
Lapid, who has proved himself to be a far smarter politician than a statesman, must be given credit for the extremely transient achievement of removing Netanyahu from office once and then keeping the circus running for more than a year. That requires skill and the 24 seats his Yesh Atid has just secured is proof of his political acumen, albeit at the cost of anybody else he could have formed a coalition with. The problem lies elsewhere, and something Bibi may find more than a headache. Lapid’s short tenure saw him accept the maritime deal with Lebanon midwifed by the Biden administration—the gains from which are dubious from an Israeli perspective. The Biden administration has, in fact, been attempting to square a geopolitical paradox in, on the one hand, promoting the Abraham Accords between Israel and Gulf Arab states while, on the other, seeking a “regional integration” which has Iran as its centrepiece. The man who had (in)famously fought with Biden’s former boss cannot like what he will see once he returns to Beit Aghion and is likely to make common cause with the Saudis who do not get along with the Biden administration either. Israel and Saudi Arabia share a security worldview in the Middle East and it would be far easier for Riyadh to sway Arab opinion, at least with the states positively impacted by the Abraham Accords and also in view of its own Arab Peace Initiative. However, no Israeli prime minister will take kindly to Riyadh’s peace initiative unless it drops or mutes the demand for Israel to return to the pre-1967 borders.
As far as India is concerned, Bibi is always welcome, and justifiably so given the decade-plus expansion of bilateral relations with him at the helm. His personal friendship with Prime Minister Narendra Modi stands to count too. Modi’s tweet— “Mazel Tov my friend @netanyahu for your electoral success. I look forward to continuing our joint efforts to deepen the India-Israel strategic partnership”—had made immediate international news but the profounder message lies in Modi’s other tweet: “Thank you @yairlapid for your priority to the India-Israel strategic partnership. I hope to continue our fruitful exchange of ideas for the mutual benefit of our peoples.” Therein lies the distance India and Israel have travelled in the last 30 years since diplomatic relations were established. Nothing had validated the cliché that the relationship had come out of the closet more than Modi’s 2017 visit to Eretz Israel, the first by an Indian prime minister. And, if anything, the brief Bennett-Lapid tenure proved that India will retain its special—said and unsaid—partnership with Israel regardless of who’s in charge in Jerusalem/Tel Aviv. Sadly, it’s debatable if we can persist with the other cliché: that of bipartisan consensus on Israel in India, given how far Congress has travelled since the 20th anniversary of the opening of the embassies in 2012.