Analysis: The fall and rise of Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu

Netanyahu was able to return to power by utilising the far right, a side of Israeli politics that had been shunned.

A supporter of former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu holds up an election banner as he campaigns at Mahane,Yehuda market Jerusalem
Former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has retained support from many right-wing Israelis despite his legal troubles [Ammar Awad/Reuters]

Jerusalem – Benjamin Netanyahu’s opponents made their feelings clear on social media with Israel’s longest-serving prime minister set to make his return to the country’s top job after winning an absolute majority in this week’s general election.

“The country is a lost cause” they tweeted, repeatedly, so much that it ended up trending on Twitter in Israel.

Elections have been a regular occurrence in recent years, but each one ended in the same result: an inability to create stable governments, and then their eventual fall.

That inability largely stemmed from Netanyahu’s natural right-wing partners refusing to support him after he was charged for breach of trust, accepting bribes and fraud.

But this time was different.

With the votes counted, Netanyahu’s right-wing bloc has an absolute majority with 64 out of the 120 seats in the Israeli parliament, the Knesset.

What’s more, the left-wing Zionist Meretz party, formed from a party created in 1948, was knocked right out of the Knesset because it did not even get the minimum 3.25 percent of all the votes required to make it in.

Rise of the far right

For Netanyahu’s opponents, the shock has not so much been having him as prime minister – he has already served a total of 15 years in the position – but instead the stunning success of one of Netanyahu’s main coalition partners, the Jewish supremacist, anti-Arab and homophobic “Religious Zionism” slate.

The slate is made up of three parties: Jewish Power, led by Itamar Ben Gvir; National Union, led by Bezalel Smotrich; and the anti-LGBTQ party, Noam. It went from six seats in the last Knesset to 14 in this one and pushed Netanyahu far over the finish line – a stunning achievement for the radical right wing.

“When Netanyahu first won an election [in 1996 after Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated], many Israeli liberals saw it as the second assassination of [then-prime minister Yitzhak] Rabin,” said political scientist Uriel Abulof of Tel Aviv University. Rabin had made a peace agreement with the Palestinians and was then assassinated for it.

“Now, with Ben Gvir, if we haven’t become too numb, it might feel like the third. [Netanyahu achieved this through] the electoral magic of fearmongering. Netanyahu is the master of that dark art; Ben Gvir is a fine apprentice,” Abulof added.

Ben Gvir was long considered a radical right-wing fringe element, who even other right-wingers did not want to be associated with.

But in 2021, Netanyahu engineered his entrance into the Knesset by pairing him up with Smotrich so that the two could together pass the minimum threshold number of votes and ensure that no right-wing votes would be lost in Netanyahu’s attempt to form the next government.

Netanyahu lost that election, but Ben Gvir got in.

Noam Sheizaf, a journalist and political commentator, said that what was worrying about these elections was the mass vote for Ben Gvir among young people and first-time voters.

“These are people who grew up under Netanyahu’s rule and absorbed a lot of his paranoid and toxic discourse about the Arabs and the left wing,” said Sheizaf, noting that part of Ben Gvir’s rise in popularity came following the violence in mixed Jewish-Palestinian cities in May 2021. “Ben Gvir operates within a discourse of Jewish supremacy and control over the Palestinian minority that has been developing in Israel for years, and which has become very strong since the [May 2021] ‘Operation Guardian of the Walls’ and the [violence] in the [mixed Jewish-Palestinian] cities involved.”

Another reason for Netanyahu’s success in this election was the division on the left.

The Labour party and the Meretz party could not agree to run on a single joint slate, nor could the parties representing Palestinians in Israel, which ran on three slates.

As a result, Meretz and the Arab Balad party did not make it in. Moreover, outgoing centrist Prime Minister Yair Lapid of Yesh Atid was campaigning for people on the left to vote for him and drew votes away from the smaller parties.

Palestinians not to blame

Jewish Israeli analysts often blame Palestinian citizens of Israel when right-wing politicians win the elections.

Indeed, Palestinian turnout was low and Jewish turnout was high, the Palestinian parties did not unite, as they had in previous years, and the Balad party did not make it in.

However, the general sentiment among Jewish politicians, and the track record throughout Israeli history with the exception of the last government, is to avoid any dependence on Palestinian parties to make a coalition.

With the exception of his Likud party, Netanyahu’s bloc is made up of religious Jews: the previously mentioned Religious Zionism slate and two ultra-Orthodox parties, Shas and United Torah Judaism.

Religious Zionism’s leaders have said that they are planning to legislate laws that would cancel Netanyahu’s ongoing trial.

But rescuing Netanyahu from going to prison has now become a secondary matter to the issue of Israel turning into a far-right religious anti-Palestinian authoritarian state.

“If Netanyahu does win an absolute majority in the final results, as we see right now, we have very challenging years ahead of us, and I am very afraid of the militarisation of the attitude towards the Arab citizens,” said Sheizaf. “What is needed now is to invest in a Jewish-Palestinian political partnership and the protection of the rights of the minority.”

Source: Al Jazeera