As of this writing some 15 hours after the polls closed, opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu appears to have won Israel’s Nov. 1 elections and is set to make a dramatic comeback as prime minister, just 18 months after being ousted by the previous balloting.
With a majority of votes counted, the one remaining uncertainty is the survival of the leftist Meretz party, which is teetering on the electoral threshold. If the final tally gets Meretz into the Knesset, Netanyahu’s solid majority will drop from the currently projected 65 seats in the 120-member chamber to 62 or 61, the minimal majority he needs to form a government.
Such a slim majority would make running the affairs of state a nightmare even for such an accomplished politician as Netanyahu, Israel’s longest-serving premier. It would hold him hostage to the extremists who secured his return to power, namely Knesset member Bezalel Smotrich, chair of the Religious Zionism party, and Knesset member Itamar Ben-Gvir, chair of the Jewish Power party, as well as every Knesset back-bencher. The Netanyahu of old would never have formed such a government. In his current reincarnation, he appears to have little choice.
This article will explore the right-wing government Netanyahu has pledged to establish, one he shares with the most conservative and reactionary forces ever to govern Israel. What does this mean for Israel’s recently inked historic gas extraction deal with Lebanon that Netanyahu has pledged to nullify? What policies will Netanyahu adopt on Iran, the Palestinians and Israel’s 21% Arab minority? How will he spin this turn of events to the international community, including the White House and the European Union, which have made their disdain for Netanyahu clear?
Let us begin with the Lebanon gas agreement, which Netanyahu is unlikely to actually overturn. Regardless of his statements impugning the legitimacy of the deal and his conduct since his 2019 corruption indictment and amid his ongoing trial, Netanyahu’s geopolitical understanding remains keen. Netanyahu clearly knows the agreement is good for Israel. He realizes that abrogating it would harm Israel’s national security, its economic interests, the future of its Mediterranean gas exploration and its credibility.
Netanyahu is also aware of the potential backlash from Washington should he damage the agreement that the Biden administration worked so hard to mediate. He will probably criticize the agreement and talk about improving it, but he will not rescind it.
Netanyahu has had to swallow many bitter pills over his years in power in the form of agreements inherited from previous leaders.
Such was the case with the 1993 Oslo Accords, which he pledged to dismantle once he took office in 1996. But not only did he not undo them, he ratified the agreements, implemented an Israeli redeployment in the Palestinian town of Hebron and handed over to the Palestinian Authority parts of the town that Jews revere as the city of their biblical patriarchs. He also signed the 1998 Wye River Memorandum with PLO chief Yasser Arafat and honored the 1994 peace treaty with Jordan signed by his predecessor Yitzhak Rabin.
Netanyahu even reluctantly adhered to the 2005 Israeli pullout from the Gaza Strip and northern West Bank carried out by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon before Netanyahu returned to power in 2009. To date, he has refused to give in to extremists' demands to return to Gaza.
But as of this week, Netanyahu will find himself in a highly delicate position, facing persistent demands on the part of West Bank settlers and their supporters to reconstitute the razed Jewish settlements in Samaria. Unlike this issue, the agreement for Israel and Lebanon to drill for gas along their naval border does not bear demographic implications. Israel did not evacuate settlements and cede land to Lebanon. Therefore, the Israel-Lebanon agreement is clearly here to stay.
His Iran policy is more complicated to predict. Netanyahu raises it constantly in closed-door discussions. His associates say he will turn his full attention to the matter once he returns to the prime minister’s office. But what is left for him to do? The current government has held off a reconstituted nuclear deal between Iran and world powers. Several brilliant maneuvers this past year by Netanyahu’s successors Naftali Bennett and Yair Lapid (alongside other geopolitical developments) have so far succeeded where Netanyahu failed six years ago despite his best efforts. The 2015 deal with Iran was signed on his watch.
Netanyahu does not have anything to fix in terms of operational policy on Iran, either. Bennett already shifted Israeli policy and freed it of its commitments to world powers, allowing it to operate within Iran, according to foreign media reports. Netanyahu abandoned the military buildup for a potential Iran strike and the Bennett-Lapid government revived it with significant budgetary allocations.
Another important question is whether he will undermine the recent appointment of military chief Lt. Gen. Herzl Halevi, a move he tried to prevent several months ago but is now unlikely to undo.
The Palestinian issue is the truly burning one. Netanyahu’s radical partners, Ben-Gvir and Smotrich, will surely make no compromises. Palestinians have carried out dozens of attacks on Israeli troops and civilians in the West Bank and within Israel in recent months. With the 14 or 15 Knesset seats won in their joint election run, the two lawmakers are likely to impose a new policy on Netanyahu: Rather than trying to contain the violence, to distinguish between terrorists and the general Palestinian population, Netanyahu’s partners will demand intensive action against the Palestinian residents of the West Bank. Early this morning, Ben Gvir tweeted, “It’s time to show them who is the boss.” It's a recipe for disaster, and the last thing Netanyahu needs. Nonetheless, he appears to have little choice.
His only escape route lies in a unity government with Lapid or Defense Minister Benny Gantz of the National Unity alliance. But neither option is realistic. Lapid and Gantz are unlikely to betray their voters at this stage by joining forces with Netanyahu, whom they vowed to defeat. And while such an option may be appealing, it would not allow Netanyahu to make the legal and constitutional reforms that Ben-Gvir and Smotrich have promised and that would ease his legal woes. In that sense, his victory this week could prove to be a pyrrhic one.