Garvan Walshe is a former National and International Security Policy Adviser to the Conservative Party
In one of the season finales of Sherlock, billboards suddenly appeared all around London with Moriarty’s face and the words: ‘Did you miss me?’ Binyamin Netanyahu, may as well have taken such ads out across Israel last week. His Likud party is the largest in the Knesset, with 32 seats compared to outgoing Prime Minister Yair Lapid’s 24. More importantly, his right wing nationalist bloc won 64 out of 120 seats, compared to the broad ‘anyone but Bibi’ agglomeration that included everyone from former chiefs of staff of the IDF to Islamist Arabs.
Netanyahu’s bloc managed to assemble a Knesset majority despite gaining only 30,000 more votes than his opponents, thanks to division in their ranks. The hard-left Meretz and Arab nationalist Balad both slipped just below the 3.25% vote threshold required to be allocated parliamentary seats. Had Meretz joined with the once dominant Israeli Labour Party or the left-wing Arab-Jewish Hadash-Ta’al, and Balad with the United Arab List, their votes would have been converted into seats, likely producing a 60-60 tie. This would have left Lapid in office as caretaker PM until new elections attempted to resolve the issue.
The coalition mathematics this time around reversed that of the last one, when anti-Netanyahu parties, combined to maximise their vote, while pro-Netanyahu ones splintered and fell below the threshold. The big winners in on the pro-Netanyahu side this time were ‘Religious Zionism’, a far right coalition led by Belazel Smotrich, Itamar Ben-Gvir, that obtained 14 seats. They are highly socially conservative, without being explicitly theocratic (unlike the religious parties, who currently also support Netanyahu), virulently nationalistic, and in Ben-Gvir’s case a one-time supporter of convicted terrorist Rabbi Meir Kahane. Running as a single list, they delivered Netanyahu victory. But they’ll also supply a throbbing headache.
Netanyahu needs the hard men because he has run out of other allies. He has become toxic to former Likud party stalwarts like former defence minister Moshe Ya’alon, and confirmed right-wingers like Nafthali Bennet, let alone centrist leaders like Yair Lapid. They are all fed up with his personal slipperiness and the corruption investigations that stalk him.
Religious Zionism, together with the two traditional religious parties, will give Netanyahu a majority. They will do their best to keep him in office and out of court (he is currently under several separate corruption investigations), but Netanyahu will pay a high price for this immunity. Despite his often inflammatory rhetoric, Netanyahu prefers to hug the centre of his governing coalitions, playing parties to his right and left off against each other, and keeping power in his own hands. Now he has become a hostage to the right.
Israeli President Isaac Herzog has tried to entice Netanyahu into a different coalition with ‘National Unity’, the latest name for the party headed by former IDF chief of staff Benny Gantz, in order to keep the extreme right out of government. But Ganz is having none of that, and has left Netanyahu to ‘dance with the one that brung him’.
The first headache from his dance partner comes through Avi Maoz, who leads the homophobic Noam party, another part of the ‘Religious Zionism’ list. Homophobia doesn’t go down well even on the right in today’s Israel. Worse, Netanyahu hopes to appoint former Shin Bet official Amir Ohana as Israel’s first gay foreign minister.
But expect more over ultra-orthodox education (the religious parties want to subsidise religious education, without maths or science, for their children), Jewish prayer on the Temple Mount, and friction with the security services, who consider Smotrich and Ben-Gvir dangerous extremists. The head of the Israel Police has even accused Ben-Gvir,, who has been convicted of the Israeli equivalent of glorifying in terrorism, of provoking clashes with Gaza in 2021.
If Ohana does manage to get appointed foreign minister, he’ll certainly have his work cut out. The coalition partners that Ohana’s colleagues in the Shin Bet kept watch on are a gift to Israel’s diplomatic enemies. Though Egypt and the Arab monarchies won’t allow distaste to blunt their cooperation with Israel against Iran, Israel will find it harder to make the argument that it’s fighting terrorism when its cabinet includes ministers convicted of it; or to refute comparisons with Apartheid South Africa when another has called for Israel’s Arab parties to be banned.
This week’s election results in the United States won’t make things any easier either, now that the odds on Trump’s return are considerably longer. The last time Israel was this diplomatically isolated was during the Lebanon War in the early 1980s.
It won’t have escaped Netanyahu, however, that Israel still has cards to play. The most valuable is its iron-dome missile defence system, the world’s best at shooting down the Iranian drones currently attacking Ukraine’s electricity and heating network. If I were Bibi, I’d give Volodomyr a call.