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2022 in review: Israel's great survivor Bibi Netanyahu makes a comeback

Israelis started 2022 with Naftali Bennett as prime minister, moved on to Yair Lapid and ended with the resurrection of Benjamin Netanyahu.  
Amir Levy/Getty Images

While Israelis tire of reports on endless coalition talks and evolving deals that monopolize the national agenda, 2022 has certainly become the year of incoming Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's comeback.

A year ago, Naftali Bennett was well into his eight months as prime minister. Together with Yesh Atid head Yair Lapid and Blue and White leader Benny Gantz, he had succeeded in what seemed impossible: the ousting of Bibi Netanyahu, the country's longest-serving premier. But their victory was short lived. Last June, having lost his Knesset majority, Bennett stepped down from his position, relegating the job to Lapid for a fourth-month period ahead of new general elections. It would be the fifth time Israeli citizens would go to the polls in less than four years. 

The Bennett-Lapid government, established in July 2021, had pledged to continue on the path of regional peace and expand cooperation with the Abraham Accords countries, that saw Israel normalize relations with the UAE, Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco. Indeed, President Isaac Herzog visited  the UAE last January, the first visit by an Israeli president to the country. That same month, Defense Minister Benny Gantz visited Bahrain, where he signed a historic security-cooperation agreement. In February, Bennett traveled to Manama for the first time. Then on March 27-28, as foreign minister, Lapid convened the Negev forum, which included the foreign ministers of the United States, Bahrain, Morocco, the Emirates and Egypt.

While running the government, Bennett, Lapid and Gantz put much emphasis onto rehabilitating and strengthening Israel’s diplomatic, economic and energy ties with Jordan and Egypt. The Jordanian case was the most difficult because of the bad blood between Netanyahu and King Abdullah. All three met separately with the king in Amman, and their efforts showed concrete results. For instance, last August, Israel’s Population Authority announced that 2,000 Jordanian workers would enter Eilat from Aqaba to work in the city’s hotel industry. Even more significantly, Jerusalem and Amman agreed to advance the Jordan Gateway Industrial Park to become one of the largest joint business ventures between Israel and its neighbors. 

Another notable diplomatic achievement was the maritime border agreement with Lebanon, an enemy state to Israel. The agreement was reached via American mediation and with assistance from Paris, thanks to the constructive relations between Lapid and President Joe Biden as well as Lapid's personal friendship with French President Emmanuel Macron

Despite scoring points in the international arena, Bennett had to content with rebellions within the coalition and even his own party. This rebellious trend correlated with another: far-right Israeli politicians gaining political clout. In 2021, far-right lawmaker Bezalel Smotrich had managed to be elected head of the Religious Zionism party. Ahead of the 2022 elections, Smotrich struck an alliance with nationalist Jewish Power leader Itamar Ben-Gvir for the two parties to run on one ticket.

Their phenomenal success of 14 Knesset seats is expected to deeply affect Israeli society in 2023 and for years to come. During the coalition negotiations, Smotrich and Ben-Gvir scored several victories. For instance, Smotrich will serve as finance minister and within the Defense Ministry and Ben-Gvir will serve as national security minister with expanded policing responsibilities. Other victories include legislation and policies that would empower settlers in the West Bank, diminish gender equality and erode other democratic principles. US officials and seniors within the US Jewry leadership have been warning against these appointments and their consequences for Israel’s international image.

Israelis got hint of what to expect under the new Netanyahu government this month. Religious Zionism lawmaker Orit Strock, set to become a minister, said that doctors should be allowed to deny medical treatments that contravene their religious faith as long as another doctor is willing to provide the same treatment. Another Religious Zionism Knesset member, Simcha Rothman, said that a religious hotel owner should be able to deny service to a gay couple “if it stands in opposition to and harms his religious sensitivities.”

The remarks of Strock and Rothman drew fire from Israeli politicians, intellectuals and celebrities. Netanyahu pushed back, pledging that LGBTQ rights would not be harmed under his watch. Still, many in Israel are worried. 

“A situation in which citizens in Israel feel threatened because of their identity or belief undermines the fundamental democratic values of the State of Israel. The [bigoted] comments heard in recent days against the LGBT community and against different groups and sectors worry and disturb me a great deal,"  Herzog tweeted.

Meanwhile, Labor Knesset member and Reform Rabbi Gilad Kariv brought this month a Torah scroll into the women’s section of Jerusalem's Western Wall. According to traditional Jewish religious law, women are not allowed to read the Torah scroll at synagogues, and are not allowed to organize their own prayer services. He used his parliamentary immunity to stage a protest against Netanyahu’s ultra-Orthodox coalition partners, who have already announced they will act to limit gender-mixed Western Wall prayer.

The ultra-Orthodox parties are also working to restrict the Israeli Law of Return, which currently enables grandchildren of Jewish grandparents to immigrate to Israel even if they are not Jews themselves according to religious laws. Such a change would not only negatively affect Israel’s relations with American Jewry, already damaged during Netanyahu’s previous term, but could also harm Jerusalem’s efforts to welcome Ukrainians fleeing the Russian invasion.

Addressing the Knesset Dec. 29, Netanyahu referred to the legacy of the 2020 Abraham Accords, achieved under his leadership. He said that one of the three goals set for his new government would be bringing in more Arab countries to normalize ties with Israel. During his election campaign, Netanyahu said repeatedly he would labor to establish relations with Saudi Arabia.  

Yet to advance this, Netanyahu would clearly have to calm his far-right pro-settlement partners. He would also need to be careful not to stop on the Americans’ toes. In his coalition talks, Netanyahu got far-right nationalists Bezalel Smotrich and Ben-Gvir to agree not to make any provocative steps that would hinder advancing on the Saudi track. Is that compatible with declarations that the new government would advance pro-settlement policies? Probably not.  

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