Netanyahu will form extreme right-wing government after Israeli election victory

TEL AVIV, Israel – Benjamin Netanyahu will return to power, thanks to the rise of Israel's far right, which won a majority of parliament seats in Tuesday's election, final results showed Thursday. The rise of religious parties ousted the establishment left-wing party for the first time since 1992.

The triumph clears the way for Netanyahu to form the most right-wing government in the history of Israel, which was formed as a socialist democratic state. The government could have vast implications for the LGBTQ community, secular citizens and Palestinians. U.S. Jewish groups have raised concerns about the bloc's agenda.

According to final results, which will be certified in the coming days, Netanyahu's bloc will pick up 64 out of 120 seats in the Israeli parliament. Netanyahu and his Likud-led government consists of the ultra-Orthodox parties, United Torah Judaism and Shas, as well as the far-right Religious Zionism party.

Outgoing Prime Minister Yair Lapid congratulated Netanyahu and instructed his staff to prepare an organized transition of power, his office told The Associated Press.

“The state of Israel comes before any political consideration,” Lapid said. “I wish Netanyahu success, for the sake of the people of Israel and the state of Israel.”

The Times of Israel also reported that U.S. Ambassador to Israel Tom Nides had phoned Netanyahu to congratulate him on his win.

Likud party chairman Benjamin Netanyahu arrives to polling station during Israeli elections in Jerusalem, on Nov. 1, 2022.
Likud party chairman Benjamin Netanyahu arrives to polling station during Israeli elections in Jerusalem, on Nov. 1, 2022.

Why it matters

The far-right Religious Zionism party is expected to play a crucial role in Netanyahu's government and receive senior ministry portfolios.

The party is known for its anti-LGBTQ policies and hard line against Arab-Israelis and Palestinians, and it could affect Israel’s relations with the U.S., its most important ally.

U.S. Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., warned Netanyahu when they met in September in Israel against forming a coalition with the far-right party, noting it could harm U.S.-Israel relations, according to Axios.

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Here’s where the party’s influence is expected to be felt:

Netanyahu's corruption cases could disappear

Netanyahu is on trial on charges of corruption in three different cases, accused of fraud, breach of trust and bribery. He faces up to 10 years in jail if convicted.

That could change if his allies in Religious Zionist make do on their election campaign promise: abolishing offenses of fraud and breach of trust against lawmakers.

The proposal has been widely criticized for being a highly tailored legal move, aimed at terminating a large part of Netanyahu’s trial. The reelected prime minister responded to the criticism by saying the changes won’t apply to him retroactively.

Robbie Sabel, professor of International Law at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, echoed a number of Israeli legal experts in disputing Netanyahu’s assertion, telling USA TODAY that “if the offense is abolished, you can’t convict someone of it. So they don't have to say it will apply retroactively. If they abolish it, Netanyahu cannot be convicted of those offenses.”

Justice Minister Gideon Sa’ar called the party’s legal reform plan “a paradise for government corruption,” while Prime Minister Yair Lapid said it’s a “deliberate campaign to cancel Netanyahu’s trial,” which would mean the end of Israeli democracy “as we know it.”

Likud party chairman Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife Sara cast their ballots during Israeli elections in Jerusalem on Tuesday, Nov. 1, 2022.
Likud party chairman Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife Sara cast their ballots during Israeli elections in Jerusalem on Tuesday, Nov. 1, 2022.

Plan to curb power of Supreme Court

Religious Zionism’s plan to overhaul the legal system in Israel also seeks to curb the Supreme Court’s power, preventing it from striking down parliamentary legislation that would violate one of Israel’s Basic Laws – the closest Israel comes to a constitution.

The anti-Netanyahu parties have called the move an attack on democracy.  The move would be legal because “there is no limit to what parliament can do," Sabel said.

Israel’s Supreme Court is, like in many other countries, considered a gatekeeper protecting civil rights.

The judicial reform plan also would make sure that a majority of the committee that appoints Supreme Court judges are elected officials – a change from the current committee’s structure, in which a majority are unelected officials. This, Sabel said, would arguably make the committee “more political.”

The LGBTQ community

Israel has made significant progress on LGBTQ rights in the past couple of years, thanks to left- and right-wing secular parties, allowing gay couples to jointly adopt and legally access surrogacy, as well as being home to one of the most famous annual Gay Pride parades in the world.

But with Religious Zionism in power, hateful rhetoric against the LGBTQ community is becoming an increasingly accepted part of Israeli society.

Party leader Betzalel Smotrich declared himself a “proud homophobe” and has made a number of derogatory comments against the LGBTQ community, saying homosexuality isn’t “healthy for society” and comparing recognition of the community to “driving through a red light.”

Ofer Neumann, CEO of Israel Gay Youth, said he believes the “darkness” Religious Zionism brings into the LGBTQ community comes from its rhetoric rather than what it can actually achieve politically.

“I'm not sure they're as eager to actually bring to life their bizarre ideas of what a person can or can’t do. I think they rather use it as a political tool in order to win more votes from people who are driven by hate,” Neumann told USA TODAY.

Religious Zionism might vote against any further laws aimed at strengthening the rights of the LGBTQ community, but a majority of Israeli lawmakers oppose its views, including Netanyahu’s Likud party.

Neumann said Netanyahu’s Likud party “doesn’t believe” in the words of Smotrich and the party's No. 2, Itamar Ben-Gvir.

Likud prides itself of being an encompassing liberal party, often pointing to one of its highest-ranking members, Amir Ohana, who is openly gay, as the best example.

“The battle of reality is determined by the powers of progress, and Religious Zionism is losing that battle,” Neumann said.

The fate of Palestinians

When Arab and Jewish politicians from the left and right wing toppled Netanyahu in June 2021 and created the most diverse coalition in the country’s history, many saw this as an opportunity to lower the tensions between Israel and the Palestinians.

But a string of Palestinian terror attacks and Israeli military operations in the West Bank has put 2022 on a trajectory to be the most violent year in the West Bank since 2005, according to U.N. Middle East envoy Tor Wennesland.

Human rights activist and political analyst Bassem Eid said the prospect of having Religious Zionism in the next Israeli government is a “disaster” for Palestinians.

“There is no doubt this will make the situation for Palestinians much worse,” Eid said.

One of the effects will be a continuation of the growing settlement enterprise in the West Bank, which is receiving full support from Religious Zionism.

Ben-Gvir has a particular goal that worries Eid: the eviction of Palestinian families from the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah. Jerusalem’s municipality has been at loggerheads with the families for decades, arguing that they are residing there illegally without proper documentation of ownership.

The families, on the other hand, have lived there for generations, some dating back to before Israel was established in 1948, and they say they indeed have legal paperwork.

Israeli-Arab population

Another minority in Israel that is worried about the Religious Zionism party’s power in the next government is the Arab-Israelis, who constitute some 20% of the country.

The party calls Arab-Israeli lawmakers “terrorists” – with Ben-Gvir going as far as advocating deportation of “illoyal” Arab-Israelis.

Jafar Farah, the director of the Mossawa Advocacy Center for Arab minority in Israel, pointed at two main issues that worry him about the far-right party: house demolitions and police violence.

“It’s expected that the government will immediately implement house demolitions against some Bedouins in the Negev desert,” Farah told USA TODAY. An estimated 80.000 Bedouins in the desert, which covers most of southern Israel, live in what is known as “unrecognized villages” or outposts, which makes any construction on their homes subject to demolitions.

Farah, who prefers the term Palestinian Arab citizens of Israel, also expects an increase in police violence against the community, saying there has been a “total failure” to investigate cases of people injured or killed by police in the past 20 years.

The Religious Zionism party will encourage “police officers to use more live fire in confrontations” with people in the community, Farah said.

As for the increasing violence internally in the Arab-Israeli community, which has seen 88 people killed in 2022, Farah isn’t optimistic that Netanyahu will invest much-needed police resources to fight organized crime.

“Netanyahu also spoke a lot about fighting crime in our community. But in the end he did nothing” when he was in power, Farah said.

The outgoing government has also been widely criticized for failing to combat organized crime in Arab-Israeli communities, despite having an Arab-Israeli party in the coalition.

Contributing: The Associated Press 

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Benjamin Netanyahu wins Israeli vote, bringing right-wing government