Netanyahu set to seal victory, returning him to power within weeks

Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel's opposition leader, was set on Thursday (Nov 3) to seal victory in Israel's general election, putting him on track to return as prime minister at the helm of one of the most right-wing governments in Israeli history.

Vote counting was expected to finish later on Thursday and Netanyahu's right-wing bloc is almost guaranteed to score a clear victory, according to near final results published by the electoral authority. That would ensure that Israel, after five elections in less than four years, will have a cohesive government with a steady majority for the first time since 2019.

The far right's strong showing was linked to fears among right-wing Jews about perceived threats to Israel's Jewish identity and to their personal safety. A wave of interethnic riots in May 2021 unsettled their sense of security, a feeling that was compounded months later by the inclusion - for the first time in Israeli history - of an Arab party in the coalition government.

Those dual concerns drove some right-wing Israelis to more extreme parties in the most recent election.

Although the coalition led by Netanyahu would provide a stable government, it would nevertheless unsettle Israel's constitutional framework and social fabric.

Currently standing trial on corruption charges, Netanyahu says that he will not use his authority to upend that process. But some of his coalition partners have said they will push to legalise one of the crimes he is accused of committing, or even to end the trial entirely.

His return would also test some of Israel's diplomatic relations, most notably with the United States and with the Persian Gulf states with which Israel recently formed alliances.

Netanyahu himself oversaw the creation of those alliances during his last spell in office. But his new coalition allies' priorities are likely to heighten tensions with the Palestinians, which could embarrass Israel's Arab and US partners.

These tensions underscore the complexity of Netanyahu's return: As Israel's longest-serving prime minister, he is a known quantity who has defined contemporary Israeli society perhaps more than any other politician. But his decision to ally with the far right, untrammeled by any centrist or leftist forces, takes Israel into the unknown.

Netanyahu may not formally return to power until the second half of November. State protocols mean that the Israeli president, Isaac Herzog, has until Nov 16 to invite Netanyahu to assemble a government, and Netanyahu's own coalition negotiations might take even longer.

Foreign-policy experts predict that Netanyahu, once back in office, will be forced to tread an awkward path between mollifying hard-line allies at home while avoiding confrontations with international partners that support a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The State Department has already hinted that the Biden administration has reservations about Netanyahu's likely coalition partners.

"We hope that all Israeli government officials will continue to share the values of an open, democratic society, including tolerance and respect for all in civil society, particularly for minority groups," the department's spokesman, Ned Price, said when asked about the election result on Wednesday.

Aaron David Miller, a former senior official at the State Department, said that Biden and Netanyahu would try to avoid conflict because they have other, more pressing priorities.

But, Miller said, "At a minimum, Biden and Netanyahu will likely annoy the hell out of one another. "

"The unprecedented character of the new Israeli government, the most right-wing in Israel's history, will - to say the least - sharpen the differences," he added.

Netanyahu was the primary architect of the landmark diplomatic relationships that Israel forged in 2020 with Bahrain, Morocco and the United Arab Emirates, and re-election is not expected to upend those new ties, even if it presents them with new challenges.

Though none of Israel's new partners has renounced the Palestinian cause, analysts say that Persian Gulf leaders now consider their own national interests to be a greater immediate priority.

"From the perspective of any of the Gulf states, normalisation is tied to their long-term strategic plans and has little to do with the day-to-day of Israeli politics," said Elham Fakhro, a research fellow at the Center for Gulf Studies at Exeter University in England. "The same way as US presidents come and go, they see any relationship with Israel as transcending short-term political dynamics," she added.

Just as he went along with the Oslo accords in the 1990s, after criticising them while in opposition, Netanyahu is also expected to stick to a recent maritime deal with Lebanon that he condemned when it was negotiated.

But his election may make it harder to formalise ties between Israel and the most influential Arab country, Saudi Arabia. The Saudi government recently made small diplomatic gestures to Israel, like allowing Israeli planes to fly through its airspace, but said it would not agree to full diplomatic relations until the creation of a Palestinian state.

"It is unlikely that there will be traction on the Saudi-Israeli diplomatic relationship," Fakhro said. In exchange for normalising ties, she added, Saudi Arabia "would expect something major in return. Netanyahu's approach - by definition - rejects the possibility of major concessions."

In Israel, Netanyahu's opponents fear that his return will empower the more extreme figures in his coalition. One of them, Bezalel Smotrich, wants to be defence minister; another, Itamar Ben-Gvir, wants to oversee the police force.

Until 2020, Ben-Gvir hung a portrait in his home of an Israeli settler who shot dead 29 Palestinians in a West Bank mosque in 1994. As a teenager, Ben-Gvir was barred from army service because he was considered too extremist. He also describes a hard-line rabbi who wanted to strip Arab Israelis of their citizenship as his "hero."

Netanyahu attempted to calm fears about his return this week, promising in a speech on Wednesday morning that he would lead "a national government that will look after everyone."

He also pledged to heal the divisions within Israeli society, adding that the country "respects all its citizens."

But many in Israel's Palestinian minority, which forms roughly a fifth of the population, remained unconvinced and afraid.

"These are difficult days," said Aida Touma-Suleiman, a Palestinian lawmaker in the Israeli parliament. "This isn't the ordinary, classic right that we know. This is a change - in which a racist, violent right-wing threatens to turn into fascism." NYTimes

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