The last thing President Biden needs at this time is the return of Benjamin Netanyahu as Israel’s prime minister. Currently the leader of the opposition, having been out of power for a year after a dozen years as prime minister, Netanyahu is poised to return to yet another term at the helm of an Israeli government, following the collapse of the coalition government of Naftali Bennett.
In so doing, he threatens to undo many of the achievements that Bennett’s short-lived government was able to implement — including the passage of a state budget, improvement in the lives of both Arab Israelis and Palestinians on the West Bank, and a restoration of comity with much of the Democratic Party. Netanyahu is likely to clash publicly with Biden over the future of the territories, which he previously threatened to annex, and the pending Iran nuclear deal, which he vocally opposed.
And he no doubt will publicly identify once again with the Trumpian elements in the Republican Party, all but dismissing Democrats of every political hue.
Netanyahu desperately wants to return to power, with the hope of avoiding a conviction on charges of bribery that he is fighting in court. Not surprisingly, therefore, during his year out of office, Netanyahu did not merely oppose the government but actively sought to undermine it. He tried picking off individual members of the governing coalition, reportedly offering them plum governmental positions if they would defect to his side. He failed to pick up additional adherents, but it is clear that his policies, if not his blandishments, helped to motivate the more right-wing members of Bennett’s own Yamina party to vote against it.
Netanyahu has bitterly attacked the Bennett government for including the Arab Ra’am party in the coalition, which was a first for an Israeli government. Having an Arab party as a formal member of the governing coalition offered Israelis a glimmer of hope that the country’s Jews and Arabs could work for the common good of both. That hope has been shattered, at least for the time being. It is unlikely that a new Netanyahu administration, any more than his previous ones, will include Arabs in his coalition.
On the other hand, Netanyahu is certain to win the support of the ultra-Orthodox and extreme Religious Zionist parties. The ultra-Orthodox, or Haredim, bitterly opposed the Bennett government not only for keeping them out of power for the first time in years, but for attempting to loosen their stranglehold over both the private lives of Israeli citizens and state budgets that all too generously financed their academies, schools and pet projects. Indeed, Haredi leaders claimed that the Almighty had caused the government to fall. As one of them put it, “a government that … tried to destroy Judaism and the sanctity of Israel … has been driven from the world. The Holy One, blessed be He, had mercy on the people of Israel.”
The Religious Zionist party, another certain member of a Netanyahu coalition, vocally supports the West Bank settlers, who constitute much of its political base. Not surprisingly, its politicians advocate for the annexation of the West Bank. The party’s leader, Bezalel Smotrich, once a member of Bennett’s Yamina party, has no compunction about vocalizing his attitude toward Arabs. In 2015, he stated that Israeli developers should not have to sell them homes. Late last year, he told his Arab Knesset colleagues, “You’re here by mistake — it’s a mistake that Ben-Gurion didn’t finish the job and didn’t throw you out in 1948.”
A poll this week showed that Netanyahu and his political partners likely would win 60 seats, one short of a parliamentary majority. Israeli polls are notoriously incorrect, however, and many former Yamina voters — “Yamina” is a Hebrew word for “go right” — could well switch to Netanyahu’s Likud party. Indeed, the Israeli press reports that Netanyahu is attempting to replace Bennett without an election by picking up the votes of current Yamina members of the Knesset. Ayalet Shaked, currently serving as Bennett’s Minister of the Interior, has announced her readiness to join a Netanyahu government.
Over the past year, the Bennett government attempted with some success to mitigate the impact of Netanyahu policies that had driven Israel and the United States further apart than at any time since the 1960s. Should Netanyahu return to office, the rift is certain to grow wider. The Biden administration rightly is focusing on the war in Ukraine and the competition with an ever-threatening China. The Middle East no longer is the central focus of White House policy.
Netanyahu, therefore, may find that — should he resume both the policies and attitudes that he left off a year ago — there will be no welcome mat waiting for him at the White House door.
Dov S. Zakheim is a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and vice chairman of the board for the Foreign Policy Research Institute. He was under secretary of Defense (comptroller) and chief financial officer for the Department of Defense from 2001 to 2004 and a deputy under secretary of Defense from 1985 to 1987.