Former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu began coalition talks on forming a government, after winning a decisive majority in Israel’s fifth election in four years with the help of ultra-Orthodox parties and a new alliance with the far right.
After a year in opposition and years of political chaos sparked by his prosecution corruption trial, the veteran politician staged a comeback in Tuesday’s vote. His majority means the period of electoral stalemate is likely over for now, and Netanyahu – already the country’s longest-serving prime minister – is expected to remain in office for at least the next four years. Back in power, the 73-year-old’s first priority will be to seek to have his trial overturned. He denies all the charges.
Netanyahu’s conservative Likud party won 32 of the Knesset’s 120 seats, making it the largest party, and his bloc managed to win 64 seats in total, largely thanks to doubling support for the Zionists religious extremists.
In IsraelIn Israel’s political system, coalition building is necessary to govern, and the new administration will likely be the most extreme in Israel’s history.
News of Netanyahu’s dramatic victory was greeted by right-wing and nationalist leaders around the world: Italy’s far-right Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni and Hungary’s Viktor Orbán were among the first to offer their congratulations after the announcement of the final vote count on Thursday evening.
Israeli media reported on Friday that Netanyahu had instructed Yariv Levin, considered the longtime Knesset leader’s right-hand man, to begin talks with religious Zionism and two ultra-Orthodox parties over the portfolios.
The leaders of the far-right list, Bezalel Smotrich and the popular Itamar Ben Gvir, both known for their anti-Arab rhetoric, are set to receive key ministerial posts as bargaining began on Friday. Ben-Gvir said he wanted to be public security minister, a post that would put him in charge of the police, and Smotrich publicly stated he wanted to be defense minister.
The slate’s shopping list includes immunity from prosecution for Israeli soldiers, expanding illegal settlement building in the occupied West Bank and rolling back LGBT-friendly laws.
Netanyahu shares little in common with his new partners other than opposition to the establishment of a Palestinian state and a mutual desire to allow parliament to override the High Court, which will help dismiss his corruption charges.
Elevating religious Zionists to the security cabinet won’t be easy: The Shin Bet, Israel’s internal security service, is unlikely to be comfortable sharing intelligence with several party members it keeps files on .
Israel’s Western partners, including the United States, also reportedly passed messages to Likud that they would have only limited contact with the ministries led by Ben-Gvir and Smotrich, if they cooperated.
Netanyahu’s return to the world stage comes as violence in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict soars: fighting in Nablus and Jenin as spring means 2022 is set to be the deadliest year for Palestinians in the occupied West Bank since 2005.
“The situation is so explosive that a single match could ignite it – and this is Netanyahu’s moment to unleash the main arsonists,” columnist Amos Harel wrote in the Israeli daily Haaretz on Friday.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken expressed alarm at the deteriorating situation in the West Bank during a phone call Thursday to thank outgoing Israeli Prime Minister, centrist Yair Lapid.
Blinken expressed “deep concern over the situation in the West Bank, including the heightened tensions, violence and loss of both Israeli and Palestinian lives, and stressed the need for all parties to urgently de-escalate the situation,” Washington said in a statement.
Israel commentators have already begun to speculate that Netanyahu may seek to sideline his new far-right partners, once they help quash his corruption charges, in order to improve his international standing.
However, having burned bridges by betraying political partners in the past, it is currently unlikely that any other party would be willing to join a Netanyahu government.