Netanyahu’s Arab (Conservative) Temptation

The elections held in Israel last March 23rd were the fourth over a two-year period (since April 2019) and many newspapers dwelled on the fact that for the fourth time in a row the proportional system was unable to provide a clear majority.

PM Benjamin Netanyahu’s majority party, the Likud, lost a total of seven seats with its worse electoral result since 2019; this was not, however, a total defeat. On the contrary, President Rivlin has just entrusted the outgoing premier with an exploratory mandate to form a new government within the next 28 days, having obtained a majority of nominations from parliamentary representatives. It therefore seems that once again Netanyahu has obtained a satisfactory result, hence a chance to form another coalition government. So what has changed compared to previous electoral outcomes?

The answer is that what appears to be possible is a coalition once again led by Netanyahu but supported by a heterogenous group of bipartisan ultra-conservative political parties, something that is truly unprecedented in this country.

All previous governments, in fact, were founded on a majority-inclined group (even when unable to reach the 61 seats required to govern the country), consisting of the Likud’s pragmatic Right, the religious parties and other centre-Right movements (such as the Blue & White – Kahol Lavan led by Benny Gantz) or Right-wing parties such as Naftali Bennet’s ha-Yamina. In opposition to this majority block – Israel has been governed by the Right or by Right-wing alliances since 1999 – there were always the divided movements of the Zionist Left (the Labour Party and Meretz, the radical Left) as well as Arab parties, alienated by all Israeli governments and condemned to play a marginal role in spite of the fact that their United List emerged as the country’s third most voted movement in the March 2020 elections. In spite of all the uncertainties and the possibility of internal rifts on the Right (as happened in 2000 with Ariel Sharon’s Kadima) and divisions linked to personal conflict (see the current opposition between Gideon Sa’ar from the Tikvà Chadashà and Netanyahu), the Right is considered the stable cornerstone around which any government coalition has been built since 1999; the Zionist Left is in fact perceived as a historical exhibit and totally condemned to being irrelevant, just like Arab parties are, albeit for different reasons.


With or without him

In the past year, hence since March 17th last year, during which the premier has seen the State Prosecutor charge him with three serious allegations of corruption, the tone of Israeli election campaigns has become totally anti-ideological, rotating only around judgement of the political figure of Netanyahu and avoiding a political debate concerning any other subjects of strategic interest, such as resuming peace negotiations with the Palestinians, preventive attacks against Iran or economic issues of particular interest for the public considering the rise in unemployment (now 16.7%).

The clash between political parties, instead, is concentrated exclusively on the premier; Netanyahu was obliged to deal with the beginning of the trial involving three different charges – the so-called “1000, 2000 and 4000 cases”, concerning allegations of “fraud, abuse of office and corruption” for having received gifts from Hollywood producer Arnon Milchan in exchange for tax exemptions and for having respectively corrupted the editor-in-chief of the daily newspaper Yediot Aharonot and that of the news website Walla in exchange for favourable media coverage. The result was that election campaigns were transformed into referendums either pro or against him, accused by his opponents of widespread corruption and immorality and defended by his constituency because of all the positive and tangible results achieved by his policies over the past 25 years.

Netanyahu has already won his personal referendum, continuing to firmly hold the leadership of his party, undeterred by his rival and former likudnik comrade Gideon Sa’ar, from whom polls expected a significant electoral advance, while destroying any possible advantage of the bloc opposing him. Crucial to this was the splitting up of the third party that emerged from the 2020 election, the United (Arab) List split up, thus ending up losing 5 decisive seats (11 in March 2020 to the current 6).

His pre-electoral aperture to Mansour Abbas, leader of Ra’am, the Islamist party and the most clearly conservative one on the entire Arab political spectrum, astonished all observers, but more than anyone else Netanyahu had sensed that, considering the high level of fragmentation in the Zionist camp, only a powerful Arab electoral group might have stood between him and the next government. The Islamist party Ra’am in fact immediately left the United List, hence the Arab coalition, to state its specific identity as the Islamic party most hostile to LGBTQ+ issues rather than anti-Jewish (including Arab parties’ traditional opposition to the fundamental law on the Jewish nation state dated July 2018, and solidarity for Palestinians over the border).


Opposites attract

As two extremely pragmatic leaders, Abbas and Netanyahu simply interpreted two profound tendencies experienced in the country: the desire to participate experienced by Arabs in Israel and the Jews’ overall move further to the Right. For the Jews this coincides with a request to finally address the process involving the colonisation of the West Bank, removing all obligations and sanctions imposed by international law, with settlers demanding full citizenship and without distinctions, as well as a more marked conservativism in customs that characterises over a quarter of the Israeli population if one adds up  the 12.6% of ultra-orthodox Jews and the 13% of nationalist-religious people to the number of Israeli Arabs who voted for Ra’am (about 273,000 people amounting to 3.79% of voters, enough to overcome the 3.25% threshold and obtain 4 seats).

Since victory in Israeli elections is the result of the sum of infinite small party formations, Netanyahu was not wrong to wager that separating that share of the population that supports Ra’am’s ultra-conservative customs would have an effect on the overall electoral result. The same miracle-operation that Netanyahu tried to impose on his Right, courting that small percentage of votes traditionally allocated to Otzma Yehudit (“Jewish Pride”), which in the last elections went to the reconstituted National-religious party (Miflagà ha-datit ha-leumi). Nevertheless, it is precisely on this second wager that his shrewd electoral calculations appear to have run aground.

The most extremist wing of the Religious Nationalists, represented by Itamar Ben Gvir, a former Jewish terrorist, and by Bezalel Smotrich, who openly supports racist and chauvinist theories, is hard to contain. A supporter in the past of Rabin’s assassination, for a long time Ben Gvir placed himself outside the spectrum of Israeli political legitimacy and still exhibits a photograph of Baruch Goldstein (responsible for the Hebron massacre in 1994) in his living room, to bear witness to a dual loyalty to the ideals of ethnic pureness as well as that of the land. Smotrich, who supports the annexation of the whole of Samaria and Judea – hence the whole of the West Bank and not only the Jordan Valley – is the founder of the NGO Regavim, aimed at reporting any illegal building of Arab origin throughout the land of Israel, hence from the Mediterranean to the Jordan. He is also ferociously opposed to the creation of a Palestinian state however limited its sovereignty may be. He is instead the author of the “theory of choice” to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; in his opinion, the Palestinians over the border should be presented with three options: Leave, accept Israeli sovereignty or fight and be defeated.

Faced with such extremist positions, Netanyahu, who desperately needs to add the four seats won by the Ra’am Party to his government so as to reach the quota of 61 seats, has not yet formed a strategy. However, since the Right is the only strong and compact formation fielded and since no party wishes to participate in a fifth election – which in any case would not turn out to be more decisive than previous ones – it is probable that a paradoxical agreement with Smotrich and Ben Gvir mediated by Bennet in a government solidly led by Netanyahu will be reached.

It could assume the characteristics of a coalition government with all the nuances of the Right and the religious parties, with external support provided by the small Arab-Islamist party in exchange for basic services for the Bedouin communities as well as a few cities in Galilee that form its main source of votes such as Maghar and Sakhnin. It would not even be that difficult to achieve this, toning down the ideological harshness of the settlers’ wing, because Ra’am’s support could be flattered by small promises such as pro-Islamic laws in the autonomous sector of Arab education, the legalisation of Bedouin settlements in the Negev or state transport and accommodation to and from the Arab cities and villages. In other words, Abbas is not presenting the premier with any controversial choices; this does not involve fighting the criminality endemic in Arab society or claiming the right of Palestinians refuges to return home or particular political rights. All he wants is to obtain material advantages and greater autonomy for his community. This is a golden opportunity for Netanyahu and perceived as such by a number of nationalist-religious rabbis such as Yitzhak Shilat, who are open to this option, although the majority of the party remains hostile considering the option of a minority government abominable since it is not founded on a solid “democratic” Jewish majority.


Right agenda

In any case, whether Netanyahu should once again prevail by bending the extremist wing, or should he fail to do so and only gain precious time as interim Prime Minister in view of a fifth election, one should be under no illusion as far as the general direction of a future Israeli government is concerned. The guidelines will be to legitimise as much as possible the circa 682,000 settlers between the West Bank (Council of Yesha) and East Jerusalem to provide them with full citizenship, emancipating them from the separate civil administration of the Territories, securing Jerusalem with the construction of the last settlements (such as Givat Ha-Matos currently under construction) to physically separate the Arab districts from the Palestinian cities of Bethlehem and Jericho and abolishing any ambition involving Palestinian territorial proximity in the West Bank, ensuring that the existence of the Gaza Strip with all its problems is forgotten by the rest of the world, possibly including its Arab neighbours, deepening economic and diplomatic relations with Sunni countries in the region as an anti-Iranian operation and encouraging Washington to cover possible Israeli-Sunni preventive military action, whatever form it may take, before Tehran reaches a point of no return in its nuclear programme.

The 43 seats won by the nationalist Right, with all its nuances, and the 58% of Israelis who, according to the latest IDI (Israeli Democracy Institute, February 2021) state that no future agreement with the Palestinians can envisage the evacuation of settlements, are there to prove that the new Israeli government will have only one obstacle on the path to the possible extension of sovereignty over part or all of the West Bank: the new Biden administration.


Cover Photo: The leader of Ra’am, Mansour Abbas, attends consultations with Israeli President Reuven Rivlin – Jerusalem, April 5, 2021. (Abir Sultan / POOL / AFP).

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