Netanyahu's Return and Israel's Most Religious Government

Netanyahu is back in Israel. The old fox of politics and her Likud party were the big winners in the country’s most recent election, the fifth in four years. At the moment, everything indicates that we will have the most religious government in Israeli history, including a far-right party. In parallel, the Israeli left had its worst electoral performance in history. Surprises can happen, however.

Our readers follow Israeli politics frequently here in our space. Therefore, we will stick to the news of the recent election. The turnout of 70,6% of the electorate was slightly higher than that of the last election and the average of the five recent elections. With 17, 4% of the electorate’s preference, Likud, from the secular right, took 32 seats, two more than its previous bench.

In second place was the center Yesh Atid of current Prime Minister Yair Lapid. With 17, 7% of the votes, the party will have 24 seats, a substantial increase of seven parliamentarians. Lapid has already conceded defeat and called Netanyahu, congratulating him and committing to the formation of a transitional government. Now Lapid becomes the institutional leader of the opposition in the Knesset, parliament.

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In third place was the Religious Zionism coalition, with , 8% of the votes and fourteen parliamentarians, more than doubling its previous bench. The leader of the coalition is Bezalel Smotrich, ex-Yamina, the right-wing party that was led by Naftali Bennett, a former prime minister. Bennet abandoned his then-ally Netanyahu and formed a broad coalition of anti-Netanyahu government. This act, as predicted, caused the end of Yamina as a viable party.

Smotrich may be the leader of the coalition, but he is not its best-known or most influential member. The coalition is formed by the union of two religious parties. One of them is Otzma Yehudit, led by Itamar Ben-Gvir. The party is the successor to the banned Kach, founded by Rabbi Meir Kahane. Kahanism is a fundamentalist ideology of the Israeli extreme right.

In short, they defend a religious state based on Jewish religious law, the halakha. Perhaps the most visible example of Kahane’s extremism is the fact that, a few years before he was murdered in New York by a local citizen of Egyptian origin, he was convicted in Israel of terrorism, for planning attacks against Arab representations. Today, its leader is the settler Ben-Gvir.

In May of last year, the Israeli police chief blamed Ben-Gvir and his anti-Arab provocations for causing the then wave of hostilities in Gaza. He is a divisive figure within Israel as well as abroad, with the US ambassador to Israel having already refused to receive him. If Kahanism becomes official as part of the Israeli government, we will certainly have another column just on the subject and its history.

Religious parties

Netanyahu may not necessarily rely on the Kahanists in their government. Or, still, he can only use them in the short term, to make volume in his speech of being “persecuted” by the Israeli judicial system. Recalling that Netanyahu is responsible for corruption and influence peddling accusations, which motivated the broad front against him, to prevent Netanyahu from using the position to interfere in investigations.

A way to compensate for the seats of the Otzma Yehudit would attract Benny Gantz, the current defense minister, who was also a minister with Netanyahu, into the governing coalition. It would then have another secular party, remove the religious character of the current composition and avoid potential international criticism for including Ben-Gvir. Gantz and his National Unity won 9% of the vote and twelve seats, two fewer than before.

Fifth and sixth were Netanyahu’s usual orthodox religious allies, the Sephardic Shas , with 8.2% of the vote and eleven seats, two more than before, and United Torah Judaism, Ashkenazi, with 5.8% of the vote and seven seats. That is, adding Likud and its three religious allies, the coalition would have 64 seats, guaranteeing a majority in parliament.

Avigdor’s Yisrael Beiteinu Lieberman, a former ally of Netanyahu, took 4.4% of the vote and six seats, losing one lawmaker. The party is on the secular right, closely linked to the electorate descended from Russian immigrants, and Lieberman broke with Netanyahu for not agreeing with what he sees as favoring orthodox religious sectors in Israeli society, such as exemption from military service, in something that has already

Defeat of the left

The Knesset is closed by the Ra’am, an Arab party led by Mansour Abbas who was part of the Lapid government, and the Arab Joint List, both with five seats each. Ra’am increased its bench by one seat and, together, the Arab parties had 7.8% of the votes. Finally, the Labor party took four seats, losing three parliamentarians.

Labour, which was once a power in Israeli politics and ruled the country, had only 3.6% of the votes. To contribute to the disaster of the Israeli left, Meretz did not go beyond the barrier clause and, for the first time in thirty years, will have no parliamentarians. Previously, the party, which is the main supporter of environmentalist agendas in the country, had six seats in the Knesset.

Official talks to form a government begin on Monday, although the “side” talks occur in the last two months. The fight will be for ministries that can affect what is conventionally called the “customs agenda”. For example, at the beginning of the covid pandemic 19, the Ministry of Health was in the hands of the Orthodox, interested in the portfolio to combat, for example, pregnancy abortion .

The main objective of the religious is the Ministry of Education, thinking about the public funding of religious, non-secular schools. As mentioned, it remains to be seen whether Netanyahu will resist the pressure and keep the Kahanists in his coalition after the elections. Another option is to attract Gantz and keep the support of the religious party. The fact is, after a brief hiatus, Netanyahu is back.

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