Netanyahu’s Far-right Israeli Government Could Pose Problems Regionally
The returning prime minister will need to restrain the extremists in his government or risk damaging the Abraham Accords, relations with the US, and Israel’s leverage on Iran
Former Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu is attempting to form a governing coalition a week after his Likud party came out on top in the parliamentary election. The veteran politician is set to lead the country one more time.
With Netanyahu back at the helm, there are many questions about how Israel’s policies will look regarding several regional issues, such as Iran’s nuclear ambitions, the Israeli-Palestinian relationship, the rapprochement with Turkey, relations with the Gulf States, and the prospect of normalization with additional Arab countries.
All the signs point to Netanyahu forming the most right-wing government in the country’s history when he takes power, likely in the coming weeks.
Prof. Eytan Gilboa, professor of political science at Bar-Ilan University, told The Media Line that Israel’s ties with countries in the region will depend on Netanyahu’s ability to restrain some of the members of his coalition.
“There are two variables here: Variable number one is how much he [Netanyahu] would be able to control his partners in the coalition, particularly the far right of Ben-Gvir and Smotrich.”
Gilboa says that because Ben-Gvir and Smotrich have all kinds of ideas that may spark tensions with the Palestinians and the Arab countries with which Israel has relations.
The behavior of these hard-right politicians, Gilboa says, “will most likely influence Israel’s ties with regional countries.”
“I don’t know how much he [Netanyahu] would be able to control them,” says Gilboa, “and what kind of positions he would give them. … Because they have extreme ideas. But he may submit – he may accept some of those demands and may reject some of those demands.”
Gilboa says that in almost all the governments that Netanyahu has led, he had “at least one party on the left and another on the right.”
This time is different because he’s “the furthest left in his government. So, he’s weaker compared to his earlier governments.”
Gilboa, who is also an expert on US-Israel relations at the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security, says that with the US midterm elections over, expectations that the Republican Party may take control of Congress may benefit Netanyahu.
“Netanyahu has very good connections with the Republican Party and bad relations with the Democrats. The Biden Administration prefers a national unity government, not this right-wing government. The results in the midterm elections might limit Biden’s ability to deal with Netanyahu,” says Gilboa.
Netanyahu promised to expand the Abraham Accords and establish new ties with Arab countries, but Gilboa says that’s unlikely because of the possible makeup of his upcoming government.
“The extreme members of his government will definitely affect his ability to convince Arab states to join the Abraham Accords. It’s going to be even more difficult to maintain the level of close relations with those who already signed agreements.”
US-brokered peace talks have been stalled since 2014 and the chance for their potential revival with Netanyahu as prime minister is slim.
The Biden Administration’s official position is that it supports a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, with an independent Palestinian state alongside a secure Israel. But with Netanyahu’s victory and the formation of a right-wing bloc, ties with Arab countries could be in jeopardy.
“Netanyahu will try to block any major changes to Israeli policy toward the Palestinians,” says Gilboa.
He says when it comes to relations with the US, Netanyahu is caught between a rock and a hard place.
“He’s going to be under pressure from his partners in the coalition when it comes to the issue of settlements, and under pressure from Biden. Let’s not forget that he will continue to rule the White House for the next two years,” concluded Gilboa.
Washington, however, has more than Israel to worry about: Talks on renewing the nuclear deal between Iran and the world powers – the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) – have hit a snag; the war in Ukraine drags on; and then there are the midterm elections.
The 73-year-old Netanyahu is Israel’s longest-serving leader, having been in office for a total of 15 years in two separate stints.
Dr. Raz Tsimet, at the Institute for National Security Studies at Tel Aviv University, told The Media Line that, most likely, the top regional issue the incoming prime minister will focus on is Iran.
“I think the Iranian issue will continue to occupy a great deal of space and time from the PM. It will be his first priority, for sure.”
Israel’s approach to Iran, Tsimet says, won’t change much under Netanyahu.
“Basically, I don’t think there’s a significant difference between the major factions within Israeli politics. When I look at the Israeli official position toward the nuclear issue, including the possibility of a return to the JCPOA; when I look at the Israeli position toward the continued Israeli military efforts against Iran in Syria; when I look at the Israeli positions toward Israeli covert activities inside Iran, I really don’t think that there is a significant difference between Prime Ministers Bennett, Lapid, and Netanyahu.”
Tsimet says a lot also depends on Iran. “We have to look at two major scenarios that might have an impact on the Israeli position [toward Iran]. One is the possibility – which at this stage seems unlikely but that could certainly change in the next few weeks or months – of a return to the JCPOA.”
A return to the Iran nuclear deal, he says, could spark new discussions about how Israel with Netanyahu as PM will react.
“You can expect Israel to continue to put more pressure on the United States not to sign a deal,” he says, adding that “if Iran decides to renew its weaponization efforts, in that case, I think it will raise the possibility of an Israeli military option.”
Tsimet says a possible emerging agreement with Iran may lead to serious tension between Israel and the United States.
He stresses, though, that without Washington’s green light, Netanyahu’s options on Iran will be limited.
“Any Israeli prime minister will find it difficult to use military force without US approval.”
Israel’s relations with Turkey hit rock bottom during Netanyahu’s years in office, but the two countries have recently seen a warming of diplomatic ties.
Hay Eytan Cohen Yanarocak, an expert on Turkey at the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security and at Tel Aviv University’s Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies, told The Media Line that, following last week’s election, “Israeli-Turkish reconciliation faces a new exam.”
“It is still not clear whether we’ll see the continuation of the problematic relations between [Turkish President Recep Tayyip] Erdoğan and Netanyahu or the continuation of the current momentum. If Erdoğan would congratulate Netanyahu on the formation of his new government, then, most probably, we will not see an immediate policy change vis-à-vis Turkey. On the contrary, such a move could even pave the way for a stronger bilateral relationship.”
Professor Ronnie Shaked of the Hebrew University’s Harry S. Truman Research Institute told The Media Line that the inclusion of far-right lawmakers Itamar Ben-Gvir and Bezalel Smotrich in Israel’s next government will make it difficult for Israel to carry on its duties.
“Unfortunately, Israel’s image will be worse. I say that because Ben-Gvir and his party and the religious parties are racist and not democratic.”
Will there be peace and calm between us and our Palestinian brothers?
Shaked says, “Democracy is at stake,” and that he wants the prime minister to focus his efforts inward.
“I do not care what will happen with the Gulf. I do care what happens here. Will we be able, at the university, to talk about what we want? This is what concerns me. Will they give the money to the left-wing Hebrew University or to Ariel University [in the West Bank]? I am afraid,” says Shaked.