MS Risk Blog

Elections in Israel: Domestic and Foreign Policy Implications

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On 29 December 2022, Benjamin Netanyahu was sworn in as Israel’s prime minister for a sixth time after he and his allies won a parliamentary majority in the November 2022 elections.  Netanyahu’s bloc, which includes his right-wing party Likud and far-right and Ultra-Orthodox parties Otzma Yehudit, Religious Zionism, Noam, Shas, and United Torah Judaism, secured 64 out of the Knesset’s 120 seats. Having appointed ultranationalist politicians to key government positions, such as Itamar Ben-Gvir as National Security Minister and Bezalel Smotrich as Finance Minister along with a post that oversees settlements in the West Bank, Netanyahu’s latest government is considered the most right-wing in Israel’s history. This will very likely have a significant impact on the domestic political situation and the peace process with the Palestinians, and will also affect Israel’s foreign policy and relations with its major partners, particularly the US and Arab states that have opted for normalization with Tel Aviv.

Regarding domestic politics, the new government’s strongly conservative and nationalist character will likely increase polarization within Israeli society. To seal cooperation between Netanyahu and his partners, the parliament approved significant legislative amendments on 27 December 2022. These changes included allowing individuals convicted of offenses but spared jail time to serve as ministers, clearing the way for Shas leader Aryeh Deri to serve as minister despite being convicted of tax fraud, and expanding National Security Minister Ben-Gvir’s control over the police. In early January, the government also put forward a plan that would allow a simple majority in the Knesset to overturn Supreme Court rulings and give the government control over the appointment of judges. The government’s members have accused the judiciary of pushing a leftwing agenda and have framed these changes as necessary for restoring the “proper balance between the legislature, the executive, and the judiciary”. But critics have asserted that they are aimed at strengthening the executive’s role at the expense of democratic institutions and enabling Netanyahu to clear himself of corruption charges against him. Furthermore, members of the coalition parties support a religious conservative agenda that is at odds with the values of more liberal Israelis. These plans have already caused sharp reactions, as around 80,000 held anti-government protests in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, and other cities on 14 January, and around 100,000 protested again on 21 January, with opposition parties vowing more actions. Although Netanyahu made a concession on 22 January by removing Deri from his posts as Health and Interior Minister following a Supreme Court decision against his appointment, increased polarization and tension are likely in Israel this year, as the government will continue attempts to reform the judiciary and push its conservative agenda.

On the Israeli-Palestinian front, prospects for a two-state solution, already bleak, will likely deteriorate further. Both Netanyahu and his partners staunchly oppose the creation of a Palestinian state and support the expansion of Israeli settlements in the West Bank. Ben-Gvir has previously been convicted of racist incitement against Palestinians, while Smotrich, a supporter of the settler movement, now has control over parts of the Civil Administration Agency within the Defense Ministry that administers Israeli and Palestinian affairs in the West Bank, giving him authority over the expansion of Israeli settlements in the occupied region. The government coalition’s guiding principles state that the government will support the expansion of settlements in “all parts of the Land of Israel” including the West Bank, “strengthen” the status of Jerusalem, and preserve the “Jewish character” of the Israeli state. In what was probably a sign of things to come, on 3 January Ben-Gvir visited the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif, despite protests by the Palestinian Authority (PA) and other Arab states. In the past, Ben-Gvir has supported changing the status quo on the holy site, which bans non-Muslims from praying there. Such a move would risk a significant escalation with the Palestinians. In addition, on 6 January, the government approved a series of sanctions against the PA in retaliation for its anti-Israel campaign at the United Nations, including withholding tax revenues from the PA and freezing Palestinian construction in much of the West Bank. With violent clashes between Israeli forces and Palestinian militants continuing in the West Bank, the Netanyahu government’s hardline stance will likely further undermine prospects for a two-state solution and increase the risk of a new major confrontation breaking out between Israel and Palestinian armed groups, such as Hamas.

As for foreign policy, continuity with previous governments is expected, although the new government’s composition will likely complicate relations with some of Israel’s partners, such as the US and Arab states that recently normalized ties with Tel Aviv, like the UAE, Bahrain, Morocco, and Sudan. The Biden administration, despite its signaled willingness to continue cooperation with Israel, has major disagreements with Netanyahu’s government regarding the Palestinian issue and Iran. For example, in its statement congratulating the new Israeli prime minister, the White House underlined its support for the two-state solution. It has also referred to Ben-Gvir’s Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif visit as “unacceptable”. Moreover, some US legislators have expressed concerns about the inclusion of “extremists” in Netanyahu’s government. On Iran, despite the stall in talks over restoring the nuclear deal, the assertive policy against Tehran that Netanyahu has announced is unlikely to be fully backed by the administration, which is seeking to focus on challenges from Russia and China. As for the Arab states, the UAE and Bahrain reached out to the new government and indicated that they are committed to the normalization deals with Israel, which were signed under Netanyahu’s previous term as prime minister. Overall, the Iranian threat and other shared interests will likely allow Israel to keep working closely with the US and its Arab partners. But Netanyahu will likely have a hard time balancing between the maximalist demands of his nationalist allies towards the Palestinians on the one hand, and the need to avoid escalatory moves and preserve some semblance of a peace process on the other. The latter is particularly important for maintaining relations and expanding normalization agreements with the Arab states. The tension between these domestic and external priorities will likely be a major test for the new prime minister.

In conclusion, Netanyahu’s electoral win and the formation of a new conservative, nationalistic government will likely significantly affect Israel’s domestic political and security situation and have an impact on its foreign relations. The tensions between the government and the opposition will further polarize Israeli society, while prospects for a two-state solution will deteriorate as the new government will likely expand settlements and weaken the PA. Furthermore, the Israeli government will likely also seek to continue established foreign policy and strengthen ties with the US and its Arab partners. But Netanyahu’s need to preserve his coalition by satisfying his hardline partners’ demands will likely complicate foreign relations and test the prime minister’s ability to balance domestic and external priorities.