Will Biden stand up to Israel's new far-right government? 

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6 min read
07 November, 2022
Analysis: US inaction has only made things worse, with the most radically religious parties poised for power in Israel.

When Israelis went to the polls on Tuesday, it seemed likely that Benjamin Netanyahu — the embattled, indicted, ex-prime minister — would emerge for the third time to retake his old former office.

But it turned out that the polls delivered an even more decisive right-wing victory than many had expected and, while consecutive Israeli elections have, over the past decade, each produced the “most right-wing government in Israeli history,” this round’s strong, anti-democratic statement was much more powerful than past ones.

Netanyahu’s Likud party is, once again, the largest in the field, with 32 seats as of Wednesday. Current Prime Minister Yair Lapid’s party is a distant second with 24.

"The power and influence Ben-Gvir, Smotrich, and other far-right figures will inevitably wield in the new Netanyahu government remain a concern"

But the election’s biggest surprise is the resounding success of the radical right-wing Religious Zionism coalition, led by Bezalel Smotrich, which scored 14 seats, making it the third largest party in the Knesset and granting Smotrich and his partner, Itamar Ben-Gvir, enormous influence in the coalition politics of the next Israeli government.

What exactly Smotrich and Ben-Gvir will do with that power remains to be seen, but they, along with right-wing religious parties Shas and United Torah Judaism, will be in a position to press their demands on Netanyahu with abandon, as any of them could bring the government down, and Netanyahu would have little hope of finding support among the opposition parties, even though many of them are also on the right.

Because Netanyahu is still under indictment and is still seen by many as a divisive and corrupt figure, the divide between his coalition partners and the opposition is not political or ideological, but rather based on their support for Netanyahu as the leader of Israel.

As a result, right-wing and center-right parties make up the bulk of the opposition to the distinctly right and far-right parties in the coalition. 

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Center-left and left-wing parties have suffered serious setbacks over the years, and in this latest election, the only truly left-wing Zionist party, Meretz, has, barring a surprising surge in the final counting, failed to obtain the 3.25 percent of the vote required to win seats in the Knesset. The center-left Labor party barely exceeded the threshold to get four seats.

The once prominent, mostly Palestinian Joint List splintered, with one of its parties, Balad, failing to cross the threshold, and the bloc’s remaining two parties — Hadash and Ta’al — managing to secure only five seats between them.

International concern

Several countries, including the United States, have expressed concern over the inclusion of Ben-Gvir and his Otzma Yehudit (Jewish Power) party in the governing coalition.

Foreign diplomats told the Israeli daily Haaretz that they were concerned about an escalation of pro-settlement policies and activities in the West Bank. They also expressed concern about the aggressively anti-LGBTQ views of the Noam party, which is also part of Smotrich and Ben-Gvir’s Religious Zionism bloc.

State Department spokesperson Ned Price told reporters, “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.”

Itamar Ben-Gvir afp
Itamar Ben-Gvir, leader of Otzma Yehudit (Jewish Power), a far-right ultra-nationalist party, secured his first Knesset seat in 2021. [Getty]

David Makovsky and Dennis Ross of the staunchly pro-Israel Washington Institute for Near East Policy also expressed concern about the implications of the emerging coalition for Israel’s relationship with the United States and its budding connections to some Arab states. 

They wrote that including Smotrich and Ben-Gvir in the next government “will have consequences in Israel with the Israeli Arabs and the legal system; with the Palestinians and the likely increase in violence; and with Israel’s Arab peace partners. (Abdullah bin Zayed — the foreign minister of the UAE — warned Netanyahu during a trip to Israel before the election that the inclusion of Smotrich and Ben Gvir would affect the relationship with the Emirates.)”

Axios reported that two American officials stated that the United States would not deal with Ben-Gvir if he was appointed to a ministerial position.

Whether President Joe Biden’s administration would actually hold to that position is questionable, but Ben-Gvir is much more interested in domestic affairs and is likely to be given a ministry that would have minimal, if any, dealings with other countries.

"Israeli voters have moved to embrace far-right parties that openly advocate anti-democratic and anti-Palestinian actions and laws"

Still, the power and influence Ben-Gvir, Smotrich, and other far-right figures will inevitably wield in the new Netanyahu government remain a concern, especially to leaders opposing the movement toward the global right. Netanyahu has made common cause with global far-right leaders such as Hungary’s Viktor Orban and Poland’s Andrzej Duda, and has deep ties to the Republican Party in the United States.

It is certain that those connections will deepen with Netanyahu’s new, more right-wing government.

Washington must reassess its strategy

Doubtless, that raises concerns for Biden. With the increasingly illiberal and anti-democratic tilt of the Netanyahu-led government, those concerns are certain to deepen and should provoke a reassessment in Washington’s approach to diplomacy with Israel, particularly regarding the Palestinians.

Domestic political considerations are frequently cited to excuse Washington’s refusal to pressure Israeli governments to find a resolution that ends its domination of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza.

The prevailing belief, particularly among Democrats, has been that pressing more moderate Israeli governments to make concessions on issues connected to the Palestinians, such as settlements, home demolitions, settler violence, and other problems, might lead to a political backlash in Israel that would boost Netanyahu and the far right.

Thus, during Biden’s trip to the Middle East this past summer, “political uncertainty in Israel” was cited as the reason why Biden told Palestinians that the “time is not ripe” for a diplomatic process aimed at securing their basic rights and freedoms that are denied by Israel.

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Indeed, his administration has bent over backwards to accommodate the outgoing Lapid-Naftali Bennett coalition government on Palestinian issues in hopes of keeping Netanyahu at bay. 

The results of this election clearly demonstrate the futility of that strategy. Despite Biden’s efforts, Israeli voters have moved to embrace far-right parties that openly advocate anti-democratic and anti-Palestinian actions and laws.

Indeed, US inaction has only made conditions for progress worse. It has effectively allowed the issue of Palestinian rights, let alone prospects for a resolution of the conflict, to be swept from view.

Even Palestinian citizens of Israel, who hoped for progress last year when, for the first time in Israeli history, a party that represented some of their community was part of the governing coalition, now find themselves in a very dangerous position with openly racist parties in control of their government.

Millions more Palestinians under occupation were, of course, denied the vote and must now prepare themselves for more assaults by settlers and Israeli soldiers.

This is not a time to hope things get better. The Biden administration must make it clear to Israel that all Palestinians are entitled to basic human rights. The Israeli right has long made a point of “standing up” to its patron in Washington.

This new government is certain to lean heavily on that idea. It will be crucial for Biden to stand up against that, though his track record offers little hope that he will.

Mitchell Plitnick is a political analyst and writer. He is the former vice president of the Foundation for Middle East Peace and former director of the US Office of B'Tselem.

Follow him on Twitter: @MJPlitnick

This article originally appeared on Responsible Statecraft.