Israelis woke up on 2 November to a news blast from the not-so-distant past. In the country’s fifth election in less than four years, Benjamin Netanyahu, the former prime minister still on trial for charges of fraud, breach of trust and bribery, looks set for a clear victory. But the real winner of the election is Religious Zionism, the far-right alliance of parties on track to win an unprecedented 14 seats. They will be a powerful member of a Netanyahu-led government.
According to the results so far Netanyahu, 73, who has spent the past year as leader of the opposition, can build his coalition with the support of the two ultra-Orthodox parties and the Religious Zionism slate. In Israel’s proportional representation system, a majority of 61 is needed to form a coalition. With 86 per cent of the vote counted, Netanyahu’s right-wing religious bloc had secured 65, with his Likud party leading with 32 seats.
On the night of the election, Netanyahu told supporters and the press gathered at the Likud election HQ that he would form a “national government” for all Israelis. The current prime minister Yair Lapid, meanwhile, told his own supporters that “nothing is over” until all the votes are counted. (Final numbers aren’t likely to trickle in until later in the week.) But, even though Lapid’s Yesh Atid party has won more seats than ever before – 24 – his centre-left bloc has little chance of forming a government. One major problem is that Meretz, the left-wing liberal party, does not seem to have passed the electoral threshold. As a result, the parties representing Israel’s traditional left are down to only four seats, held by the Labor Party. (Balad, the Palestinian nationalist party, also didn’t pass the electoral threshold.)
The elections were called in June when Lapid’s coalition “change government”, as Israelis call it, that had finally managed to unseat Netanyahu after four rounds of elections, fell apart. That coalition was broad, with parties from the left, right and centre, and it even included Ra’am, the first Arab-majority party to join an Israeli government in decades.
The prospect of the Religious Zionism alliance now joining Netanyahu as a senior and powerful part of a new governing coalition is an alarming alternative. Its leaders, Bezalel Smotrich and Itamar Ben-Gvir, have avowedly extremist and racist views. Ben-Gvir’s party is called Otzma Yehudit, or “Jewish Power”, and he is a disciple of the extremist rabbi Meir Kahane, whose Kach movement was banned in Israel. On election night, at the Jewish Power HQ, the party’s supporters chanted “Death to terrorists!” as Ben-Gvir promised to act against people who work “to undermine our existence here”.
There are still votes to count, so the picture could change. If the current results hold, however, Religious Zionism will be in a position to enact policies and laws that will hurt Israel’s very fragile semblance of democracy. This includes taking power away from the Supreme Court and passing legislation that would help Netanyahu stay out of prison. And Likud parliamentarians are openly calling for that, too. The Knesset member Tali Gottlieb, a lawyer, told Israel’s Channel 11 on election night that she thinks fraud and breach of trust should not be criminal offences in Israel.
Netanyahu also went full Trump, with his party alleging voter fraud in Arab communities – a claim discounted by the election commission. This gives yet another sign of what awaits Israel with Netanyahu’s return to power: a leader willing to harm democracy and the country he claims to care for, so long as it serves his political survival. The Israeli electorate has opted for a far more uncertain, and frightening, future.