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As Netanyahu returns, concerns grow over far-right ally

Triumphant in this week’s election, Benjamin Netanyahu faces a new test forming a government with an ultranationalist party whose sudden rise has
many at home and allies abroad alarmed at the potential implications for Israeli democracy.

November 4, 2022
By James Mackenzie
4 November 2022

By James Mackenzie

JERUSALEM, Nov 3 (Reuters) – Triumphant in this week’s
election, Benjamin Netanyahu faces a new test forming a
government with an ultranationalist party whose sudden rise has
many at home and allies abroad alarmed at the potential
implications for Israeli democracy.

Israel’s longest-serving prime minister and dominant
political figure, Netanyahu, 73, is on course for a comeback a
little over a year after losing an election to an unlikely
coalition of right-wing, liberal and Arab parties in 2021.

This time however he has had to share the limelight with
far-right leader Itamar Ben-Gvir, 46, who appears likely to take
a senior role in government after the Religious Zionism bloc he
co-heads became the third-largest in parliament with 14 seats.

Whereas religious parties have featured regularly in
previous rightist coalitions, Religious Zionism is on course to
exercise unprecedented influence, said Assaf Shapira, director
of Political Reform at the Israel Democracy Institute.

“This party is a huge success, no religious party in Israel
has ever achieved such a number,” he said.

Supported by many outside the normal base of religious
voters, the rise of Ben-Gvir, a fiery provocateur who until
recently was calling for Palestinians to be expelled, reflected
widespread fears over security among many Israelis.

That was especially the case following the violence that
erupted in some mixed Arab and Jewish cities last year, causing
a profound shock to many residents.

“People have woken up and seen that what’s going on in the
country cannot be ignored,” said 29 year-old teacher Moria
Sebbag. “Let’s hope security will be restored, that’s what’s
important to me right now.”

Ben-Gvir has said he wants to become police minister but it
is still unclear what Netanyahu, on trial on corruption charges
which he denies, will do once he is back or what positions
Ben-Gvir and his partner Bezalel Smotrich may be offered.

With the conflict with the Palestinians surging anew and
touching off Jewish-Arab tensions within Israel, Ben-Gvir on
Thursday tweeted: “The time has come to impose order here. The
time has come for there to be a landlord.”

Fears have risen both in Israel and abroad that some
measures talked about by the far-right – such as expelling
anyone deemed “disloyal” or imposing greater constraints on the
courts as Smotrich has proposed – could alter the character of
Israel’s democracy if they are ever implemented.

“I do think it’s a shift in democratic norms,” said David
Makovsky, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East
Policy. “I don’t think it means it’s not a democracy but it is a
shift for a country that has always prided itself on the
independence of its judiciary.”

‘TOLERANCE AND RESPECT FOR ALL’

Part of the balancing act facing Netanyahu will be ensuring
that such concerns do not cause problems with allies, including
the United States, where there has been little sign of
enthusiasm for his new partner.

Asked about concern over dealing with Ben-Gvir, who was
convicted in 2007 of racist incitement and support for Kach, a
group on the Israeli and U.S. terror blacklists, a State
Department spokesman declined to comment on “hypotheticals.”

He said the administration hoped “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.”

Much may also depend on the result of next week’s
congressional elections in the United States where Republican
candidates with whom Netanyahu has long felt more comfortable
may make gains at the expense of President Joe Biden’s
Democratic Party allies.

Some of Netanyahu’s longstanding priorities are expected to
continue, notably his unyielding stance against Iran and his
determination that Tehran should not acquire a nuclear weapon.

He is also expected to try to continue to build on the
historic achievement of his last period in office, the Abraham
Accords with the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, a potential
precursor to a wider normalization with the Arab world.

Yet there is no sign of progress on the Palestinian conflict
after Yair Lapid, now the caretaker prime minister, briefly
revived talk of a two-state solution this year; Palestinian
reaction to Netanyahu’s win has been almost uniformly hostile.

Contrary to his hawkish image, Netanyahu has often taken a
more flexible and pragmatic approach than some of his
predecessors. But there have been fears his legal problems may
push him to make concessions to the far-right in return for
their support in clipping the wings of the courts.

“Netanyahu now has a personal interest in limiting the power
of law authorities and the Supreme Court because of his trial,”
Shapira said.

Even while the campaign was under way, Smotrich proposed a
set of legal changes that would cut into judicial authority and
increase government control over the judiciary while potentially
helping Netanyahu in his legal battles.

Lapid joined a chorus of critics denouncing the proposed
changes as an attack on the rule of law and Netanyahu has been
at pains to project a statesman-like image to allay fears of an
anti-democratic revolution.

In a speech to supporters, Netanyahu said he would be
avoiding “unnecessary adventures” and Ben-Gvir himself, who only
a few days ago was brandishing a gun at Palestinian
demonstrators in occupied East Jerusalem, has promised that “we
represent everyone.”

(Additional reporting by Emily Rose and Henriette Chacar and
Matt Spetalnick in Washington; Editing by Howard Goller)

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