November 10, 2022

IntelBrief: Netanyahu Comeback Upends Regional Politics

AP Photo/Maya Alleruzzo

Bottom Line Up Front

  • Former Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu is set to return to office on the election strength of his right-wing coalition, which won 64 out of the 120 seats in Israel’s Knesset (parliament) early November election.
  • Netanyahu’s majority is projected to end several years of political volatility in Israel, but threatens to alter Israel’s relations with major Arab states, the Palestinians, and Israel’s main benefactor, the United States.
  • Netanyahu is expected to temper the views of his right-wing Jewish coalition partners, some of whom advocate extremist anti-Arab and anti-Palestinian measures.
  • The return of Netanyahu to power will increase divisions between Israel and the United States on strategy toward the growing threat from Iran.

As a consequence of early November national elections, and after five elections in less than four years, Israel appears set to have the first stable government in several years. The elections have produced an unlikely comeback for Binyamin Netanyahu, who has been Prime Minister of Israel for most of the past fourteen years – his leadership ending in 2021 when a coalition dedicated to his removal succeeded in forcing him from office. His tenure as prime minister was plagued by corruption charges, and he still faces a litany of bribery, fraud, and breach of trust charges in a long-delayed trial. Despite winning narrowly in the popular vote, his coalition won 64 of the Knesset’s 120 seats – a sufficiently clear result to be able to form a government. His hardline but mainstream Likud Party won 32 seats. Netanyahu’s past leadership was marked by strains with most U.S. leaders, particularly over the issue of negotiations with the Palestinians and with Iran, but it is Netanyahu’s current right-wing coalition partners that have most roiled opinion among U.S. and regional officials.

Regional and international officials are closely watching the degree of influence that will be wielded within Netanyahu’s government by the right-wing Jewish bloc Religious Zionism, headed by Itamar Ben-Gvir. The bloc won 14 seats. Ben-Gvir has called for Palestinian citizens of Israel who are “disloyal” to Israel to be expelled, and he supports the use of live ammunition against Palestinians who throw stones at Israeli security personnel. He is a former member of the banned Kach party, which was listed by the U.S. State Department as a foreign terrorist organization (FTO) from 1997 until 2020. It and other parties in the Netanyahu coalition have ties to the Jewish settler movement and other hardline anti-Palestinian and anti-Arab movements. After the results were announced, Netanyahu attempted to calm international and domestic opinion by indicating that his government would not alter any of its laws or practices on issues of concern to Arab citizens of Israel. At the same time, Netanyahu’s coalition excluded Arab parties participating in the governments of his defeated predecessors.

Whether or not Ben-Givr and his faction gain significant roles in a new government, regional and international governments are weighing the rightward turn of Netanyahu’s government in calibrating their reactions to his likely return. Apparently expecting more strains with Netanyahu than past U.S. administrations, President Biden withheld an immediate call of congratulations to Netanyahu after the final election results were announced, even though the current Prime Minister, Yair Lapid, conceded defeat. U.S. officials are concerned that Netanyahu’s next government will aggravate tensions between Washington and Jerusalem over issues that have long divided the two countries: Iran and Israel’s treatment of and relations with the Palestinians. The stance of the new government will likely, in turn, determine whether Israel’s relationships with the Arab states, particularly the Arab monarchies of the Persian Gulf will continue to deepen or backslide.

None of the Arab states that signed onto the September 2020 U.S.-brokered “Abraham Accords” – the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Bahrain, Sudan, and Morocco – has indicated that they would rethink the normalization of relations with Israel or agreements pursuant to the Accords. Shaykh Khalid bin Ahmed Al Khalifa, the diplomatic adviser to Bahrain’s King, stated after the election that: “We have an agreement with Israel, part of the Abraham Accords, and we will stick to our agreement and we expect it to continue in the same line and continue building our partnership together.” The two countries will continue to negotiate a free trade agreement (FTA) similar to that agreed between Israel and the UAE. Still, the victory of a clearly anti-Palestinian coalition in Israel could deter additional Arab states from signing onto the Abraham Accords and put other Arab leaders on the defensive about their relations with a highly anti-Palestinian Israeli government. The November 1-2 Arab League summit in Algeria – the first summit of the group held since 2019 – concluded with a communiqué that called for an independent Palestinian state, full membership for the Palestinian Authority in the United Nations, and an international conference to resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict. U.S. and Arab leaders have interpreted Netanyahu’s election victory as providing little chance, at least in the near term, for implementing the “two-state” solution supported by U.S. and Arab leaders. Hours after Netanyahu’s win became clear, Palestine Islamic Jihad (PIJ), an Iran-backed militant group based in Gaza, reacted to the power shift in Israel by launching four rockets against Israeli territory but failing to hit any targets.

Netanyahu’s win might also increase strains with Washington over policy toward Iran. Netanyahu has been a consistent, staunch opponent of the 2015 multilateral Iran nuclear deal. His predecessors opposed the decision of the Biden administration to negotiate with Iran to revive the pact, which the Trump administration exited in 2018, but they muted their opposition in order to avoid further tensions with the United States. Netanyahu has never been shy about openly criticizing U.S. presidents for signing onto the Iran nuclear deal. The talks about reinstating the Iran nuclear pact have stalled in recent months over Iranian demands, as well as over Iran’s crackdown on a sustained, female-led uprising demanding women’s rights and Iran’s supply of drones and missiles to Russia for its war in Ukraine. The hiatus in the talks has, at least temporarily, eased Washington-Jerusalem strains on the issue. However, U.S. officials do not rule out resuming or completing the talks – a stance certain to attract vocal opposition from Netanyahu and his new governing coalition. U.S. officials also remain concerned about the potential for Israel to take unilateral military action against Iran’s nuclear program if the talks were to collapse. In the aggregate, Netanyahu’s return to power is certain to complicate U.S. foreign policy when Washington seeks to focus on ending the war in Ukraine and constraining China’s regional and global ambitions.