Benjamin Netanyahu's political career seemed to have been written off when on 13 June 2021 a heterogeneous mix of eight different parties formed an unthinkable coalition government to oust him from power. But, in reality, the conservative leader never gave it up. He pressed, meditated and forged new alliances while awaiting the fall of the fragile Bennett-Lapid tandem. He bided his time and time rewarded his obstinacy with a new opportunity at the polls that he does not seem to have missed.
Barring a hecatomb, 'Bibi', as he is affectionately nicknamed by his supporters, will revalidate the office he has held for 15 years, 12 of them consecutive. Perhaps the most influential Israeli politician since the country's founder, David Ben-Gurion, he is on the verge of his third ascension to the head of government after the 1 November elections, the fifth in less than four years. Exit polls gave a slim majority to the right-wing bloc, led by the 73-year-old Netanyahu himself, who has always led the conservative Likud.
But with more than 85% of the votes counted, the support of the ballot boxes seems much more resounding. Likud would amass 32 seats, eight ahead of the centrist Yesh Atid (in English, There is a Future), the platform of interim Prime Minister Yair Lapid. In third place with 14 seats in the Knesset would be the ultra-nationalist Religious Zionism, Netanyahu's preferred partner, which has registered a meteoric rise of eight seats compared to the last elections. Behind, somewhat more insubstantial than expected, is Defence Minister Benny Gantz's National Unity list, the only bridge between blocs.
The right-wing sector would obtain 65 of the 120 seats in the Knesset, comfortably above the magic number of 61 that marks the parliamentary majority. The Likud and Religious Zionism seats would be joined by 11 seats for the ultra-Orthodox Sephardic Shas and eight for United Torah Judaism. On the other hand, Lapid's liberal Yesh Atid would unite the opposition with 45 seats in the Knesset, plus the 10 seats won by the Arab Islamist groups, this time divided into three candidates.
In contrast to Netanyahu, Lapid on Wednesday became the shortest-serving head of government in office. The former boxer, actor and popular television presenter has only been in power for four months, officially since 1 July, when his right-wing partner Naftali Bennett, with whom he agreed to take turns in office to seal the coalition agreement, resigned. It has been a short time, in which he has combined the post of head of government with that of Foreign Minister, but he has several achievements to his credit. The latest is the historic maritime delimitation agreement with Lebanon, sealed five days before the vote.
"Tonight will last two days, it won't be over until the last vote is counted", Lapid told his acolytes from his campaign bunker in Tel Aviv. In reality, the result was practically sealed and the mandate of the ballot box was by then incontestable. In fact, the Prime Minister cancelled on Wednesday his participation in the COP27 climate summit, scheduled to begin on 6 November. President Isaac Herzog will represent Israel.
Voter turnout was over 71.3% and was the highest since the 2015 elections, according to data from the Central Election Committee. The fact that these were the fourth elections since 2019 made no impression on the Israeli electorate, which was highly mobilised for a vote that was expected to be decisive in ending the protracted political deadlock.
Likud militants began to celebrate on Tuesday night, long before the end of the count. The direction of the votes in some liberal strongholds and in certain Arab-majority localities remained to be known, but there were no surprises. On paper, the final results will not be known until late Thursday or early Friday. In practice, the return of the former prime minister is a fait accompli. Herzog, whom he defeated in the 2015 elections, is preparing to put him in charge of forming a government.
The elections were in fact a plebiscite on Netanyahu. He is a divisive and polarising figure who has been the backbone of national politics for decades. The hitherto opposition leader is dogged by several corruption cases of alleged bribery, fraud and breach of trust for which he has not been held accountable and which he vehemently denies. In addition, he has lost the trust of countless government partners because of his power games. From Gantz to Bennett to Lapid, who served as Finance Minister in his third cabinet.
This time 'Bibi' has regained control with the invaluable help of the radical right and the traditional ultra-Orthodox platforms. He will form, in principle, the most right-leaning Israeli government in its history with the participation of the two visible heads of the Religious Zionism list, Bezalel Smotrich and Itamar Ben-Gvir. The latter, the declared heir to Kahanism, a political current banned in Israel for its openly racist positions against the Arab Muslim population, wants the Ministry of Public Security. He has a criminal record.
Netanyahu called for "lowering the flames of public discourse, mending divisions and restoring domestic peace" as he prepares to fit two incendiary profiles into his next cabinet. His fellow travellers are already pushing for key ministries given their contribution to the parliamentary majority. In Smotrich's case, there is even talk of the justice portfolio, but Netanyahu has to be careful not to irritate important Likud cadres.
The secular, centre-left Haaretz newspaper warns in its Wednesday editorial that Israel is "approaching a right-wing, religious and authoritarian revolution". Many analysts predict a democratic backlash in the country. The right-wing bloc's plans to change the judiciary in order to subjugate the courts further the idea that Israel could become a hybrid regime. In the process, Netanyahu could put his problems with the judiciary behind him.
The context in which the elections were held was undoubtedly decisive. Violence has flooded Israel in 2022, the bloodiest year since 2015 and the year with the most clashes between Israelis and Palestinians. Without going any further, in the 48 hours prior to the elections, two Palestinian attacks against Israelis resulted in one death and several wounded. Netanyahu's return to power could further escalate tensions.