In nearly every instance of the umpteen times I have spoken about the Israeli election results over the past week, I inevitably get some version of the same question, which is “what is the silver lining in what lies ahead?” I have been worried about the prospects for the next Israeli government for months and am as alarmed about the influence of Bezalel Smotrich, Itamar Ben Gvir, and their band of radical revanchist racists as I can possibly be. Nevertheless, there is a case to be made that things will not be as bad as they appear, and that the warnings about what will happen next are overblown. I will lay my cards out in the open up front and say that I myself don’t buy the argument that I am about to make, but that it is also a plausible prediction of how things could unfold in a direction that will make some upset over policy shifts but that will not represent a radical break from previous Israeli governments. So for those looking for some hope onto which they can hang, here is why a sky-is-falling attitude is unwarranted.
The first and most important factor is Binyamin Netanyahu, the man whose record and actions are more extensive than any living Israeli politician. Netanyahu is a true conservative in the sense of being cautious on policy, and has effectively served as the left flank of Likud for nearly a decade. As prime minister, he avoided major wars, pursued Gaza ceasefires and backroom deals to keep Hamas sated and the territory quiet, did not annex West Bank territory or retroactively legalize illegal outposts despite a clamor in his party and coalition to do both, and was described by former Israeli Chief Justice Aharon Barak as the justice system’s greatest defender. Perhaps most saliently, Netanyahu has been burned multiple times by pushing the envelope too far on Jerusalem—the Western Wall tunnels in 1996, the Temple Mount metal detectors in 2017, withholding a moratorium on Sheikh Jarrah evictions in 2021—and is aware of Jerusalem’s uniqueness as a spark for violence and chaos. This is not to suggest that Netanyahu has always acted prudently, and while there are many things that can be laid at his feet, he has not been a radical arsonist in the mode of some of his future coalition partners. For all of the focus on Ben Gvir, it is Netanyahu who is going to be prime minister, and his history of leadership is one of right-wing governance rather than complete anarchy. The next Israeli government will be a sequel rather than an entirely new production.
It is also the case that Netanyahu is the one who ultimately has leverage over his partners in forming the next government rather than the other way around. UTJ, Religious Zionism, and Otzma Yehudit have been insisting that specific agreements on policy priorities must be struck before they agree to form a government, but it is nearly impossible to envision a scenario in which any of them forces a sixth election. UTJ has spent the past 18 months watching helplessly as the Bennett-Lapid government threatened Haredi childcare subsidies, enacted reforms to kashrut certification that harmed the ability of its constituents to make as much money as kashrut inspectors, and imposed taxes on popular Haredi staples such as disposable plates and soda. Religious Zionism and Otzma Yehudit more than doubled their Knesset seats on the back of promises to restore order to Israeli streets and protect Israel’s Jewish identity. The Haredi parties cannot afford to roll the dice on a new election and risk being left out of the government again, and Religious Zionism and Otzma Yehudit cannot afford to roll the dice on a new election and risk missing their first chance at genuine political power. With the exception of Shas head Aryeh Deri, who also happens to be the least troublesome from Netanyahu’s perspective, Netanyahu is also more experienced and savvier than his bloc’s other party leaders combined. Nobody should be surprised if he puts the brakes on some of the more revolutionary proposals floating around, waters down others, and shifts the powers of some ministries into the prime minister’s office in order to centralize policymaking in his hands. His political partners are at the high-water mark of their leverage now, but as the deadline to form a government gets closer, they have too much to lose by continuing to hold on to their absolute demands.
There have also been signals from both Religious Zionism and Otzma Yehudit since the election intended to project a more moderate image, from Ben Gvir’s open letter on Monday to his “brothers on the left” in which he pledged protection and security to Israeli Arabs, to Religious Zionism MKs promising that they do not intend to roll back LGBTQ rights. That does not mean that these parties are moderating; they remain extremists in temperament and in their policy preferences. What it does suggest, however, is that they have an internal sense that they cannot bulldoze everything in their path and have to win over those who are deeply skeptical of their aims. If they already feel some political constraints to come off as more responsible and less threatening, it is a more encouraging scenario for the scope and pace of how things will proceed than if they were coming out of the gate already swinging. It implies some internal guardrails, even if they are low and flimsy.
Irrespective of the makeup of the next government, one factor that has not changed is the presence of the IDF, which plays a more decisive role in the West Bank than the political establishment. A familiar refrain in recent years from those with territorially expansive ambitions for the West Bank has been that the IDF is populated with leftists who constantly thwart the desires of elected officials by raising bogus security concerns. Whether there is truth to this narrative or whether it was concocted by a right-wing prime minister as a convenient excuse for why he wasn’t taking certain actions, the IDF has large measures of both independence and influence. A theoretical Defense Minister Smotrich will not be able to completely blow off IDF warnings and professional advice regarding the Palestinians, and a theoretical Public Security Minister Ben Gvir will not be able to completely blow off IDF, Shin Bet, and police warnings and professional advice about the Temple Mount or the situation inside Israel’s mixed cities.
Another moderating influence is outside parties, who have more power than many Israelis like to acknowledge. Netanyahu and Naftali Bennett both signed scientific cooperation and trade agreements with the European Union that explicitly excluded the West Bank. Netanyahu dropped his plans for West Bank annexation—plans that had been blessed by the U.S. through President Trump’s Peace to Prosperity vision—in the face of public and private pressure from the UAE, ultimately making the Abraham Accords possible. Bennett did not use his time as prime minister to build in E-1, Givat Hamatos, or Atarot, despite being the person most responsible for popularizing Israeli annexation of Area C and having a resolute stance on the need for Israel to build more Jewish neighborhoods in East Jerusalem, due to a strong U.S. stance behind closed doors. The extent to which Israel pushing forward on cutting off East Jerusalem from the West Bank and changing the West Bank’s status will endanger its relations with external actors remains to be seen, but there is no question that Netanyahu will be reluctant to take steps that take the shine off the Abraham Accords—one of his glittering diplomatic successes—or risk their temporary suspension. And while he is no stranger to fights with American administrations, President Biden is viewed differently in Israel than President Obama, making a high-profile spat with the U.S. politically riskier than it was in 2015-16.
Finally, Netanyahu is a master politician, as even his most bitter opponents would concede. He knows the risks of overreach, and how his own position will be impacted if Israel’s economy suffers due to spooked investors, or if harsher policies in the West Bank lead to a third intifada or the collapse of the Palestinian Authority. Smart politics dictate sensitivity to why votes were cast as they were, which was not primarily to upend Israel’s whole political and judicial system, but to improve the economy and restore a sense of personal security to Israelis. Some radical parties were the beneficiaries of these political winds, but that is not the same as a majority of Israelis—or even a majority of the voters who put this prospective coalition into power—supporting their most radical ideas.
Israel is a right-wing country that has largely voted in right-wing governments for over four decades. The policies those governments pursue are anathema to many American Jews, but that does not make them illegitimate or fundamentally non-democratic. Netanyahu has led these types of governments before, and for the reasons laid out above, he may well be about to lead one again. If that turns out to be the case, it will not represent a radical break or a fundamental shift despite the presence of noxiously odious ministers who do indeed represent a new low. To reiterate, I think the chances of this best-case scenario are lower than the chances of the alarmist predictions coming to pass, but no analysis of what comes next is complete without acknowledging that Israel’s future is not set in stone and might turn out differently than the direst warnings suggest.