With most of the votes in Israel’s latest elections counted, long-term former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu is slated to return to power. According to the latest results, Netanyahu’s right-wing bloc maintains a 65-seat lead in the 120-seat Knesset, Israel’s parliament. His comeback has been made possible through the dramatic rise of the ultra-right Religious Zionist party, led by Bezalel Smotrich and Itamar Ben- Gvir, which is expected to obtain 14 seats. If, as expected, Netanyahu will form a government including the Religious Zionist party, Smotrich and Ben-Gvir are likely to become ministers in his cabinet.
Smotrich and Ben-Gvir’s rise to power represent a further move of Israeli politics to the right and an ever-deeper entrenchment of Israeli apartheid, the systematic policies and practices of Israeli-Jewish supremacy and Palestinian discrimination, being increasingly recognized by leading human rights organizations and others as constituting an international crime against humanity. Both politicians are seen as having an unapologetically and fascistic agenda with Ben-Gvir having been a main instigator of the recent Jewish provocations at the Al-Aqsa Mosque/Haram el-Sharif.
A government with cabinet posts for Smotrich and Ben-Gvir is likely to have significant consequences for Israel’s relationship with both the Arab world, Europe, and the US. The UAE apparently warned Netanyahu that their inclusion in a new Israeli government might undermine the Abraham Accords. US Senator Robert Menendez and Representative Brad Sherman are reportedly upset about the prospect and similar concerns are likely to have been communicated to Netanyahu by the Biden Administration and key European interlocutors. Jews in Europe and the US are reportedly very concerned as well.
With Netanyahu’s lead almost certainly confirmed, there is bound to be a lot of pressure on acting Defense Minister Benny Gantz to bring his seats over and join a Netanyahu-led coalition, to keep Smotrich and Ben-Gvir out of the new government. The Israeli press is filled with speculation about Netanyahu’s calculations. Whilst he helped forge the deal that allowed Religious Zionist’s rise to prominence, Netanyahu has never publicly appeared with Ben-Gvir, apparently for fear of reputational damage, especially vis-à-vis the US.
Whatever the eventual makeup of a new Israeli government, it is hard to argue that Smotrich and Ben-Gvir, leading the third largest party in the new Knesset, will not help to transform Israel’s already severely tainted image abroad. Their actions will undoubtedly help the process of delegitimization and further entrench the image of a hard, militant, unregenerate Israel moving further and further to the right. It was Ben-Gvir who as a young man cheered when former prime minister Rabin was assassinated and who was prevented from entering the Israeli army due to his extremist views.