A coalition involving several extreme right-wing parties has Benjamin Netanyahu poised to return as Israel’s prime minister. “In some sense he owes them a debt,” says USIP’s Lucy Kurtzer-Ellenbogen. “What is the cost being extracted by these right-wing parties” as the government formation process begins?

U.S. Institute of Peace experts discuss the latest foreign policy issues from around the world in On Peace, a brief weekly collaboration with SiriusXM's POTUS Channel 124.


Julie Mason: I'm Julie Mason. Lucy Kurtzer-Ellenbogen is director for Israeli-Palestinian conflict in the U.S. Institute of Peace, here to talk about Israel's recent elections and attempts to form a government. Lucy, welcome back.

Lucy Kurtzer-Ellenbogen: Thank you, Julie. Good to be on the show.

Julie Mason: I think we are not sufficiently alarmed by what's happening in Israel.

Lucy Kurtzer-Ellenbogen: Well, the outcome of the recent elections has certainly given many within Israel, frankly, and those watchers of Israel from outside among Israel's allies, pause for concern. You know, this is the first time in, it's been a little over three and a half years and five elections and on the plus side, after that amount of time, there's finally some numeric stability. It looks like there will be a coalition that can hold that goes substantially over the number needed for a majority. But I think the concern that you're talking about, is the fact that that stability has been bought at the cost of that coalition being strengthened by ultra nationalist, racist, very extreme parties.

Julie Mason: Yes, basically, as I understand Netanyahu threw his lot in with that group as a means to power and now, he's got to be with them.

Lucy Kurtzer-Ellenbogen: Yeah, that's correct. I mean what's interesting is when you look at the numeric breakdown of the vote – and this is not an unfamiliar story to many of us watching democratic elections around the world in recent years – the numeric breakdown of those who supported the pro-Netanyahu camp and the anti-Netanyahu camp, and that's essentially how this election broke down, and how, in fact, the elections have broken down over the last three and a half years. But those numbers aren't so far different. But you are right that Netanyahu was very strong in being able to unite those who would enter into a coalition with him. And he did that by cobbling together, bringing together basically three small parties on the extreme right, getting them to run in one single party, which enabled that party to cross the threshold. And now in some sense, he owes them a debt because they are what will enable him to hold on to a government.

Julie Mason: What is going on in Israel that this particular group, not only aspires to power, but is being given power?

Lucy Kurtzer-Ellenbogen: Well, you know, as I said, in many ways, this is more a story of the mechanics of the Israeli political system, not solely. I mean, I think what you have seen over many years, there's been a really strong shift to right-wing identification in Israeli politics among the Jewish-Israeli electorate over many years. Now, I should note here that right and left-wing in Israel tends to break down essentially as a proxy on how hawkish or dovish are you when it comes to relations, Israeli-Palestinian relations, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and the occupation. There has been a shift though right now that can be explained by many phenomena. You've seen it certainly at the height of the peace process in the early 90s. You really had the heyday of the left-wing and the peace camp, the Second Intifada, and all the violence that ensued really decimated the left-wing peace camp, and you've seen a shift to the right ever since then.

But again, the last few elections, as I mentioned, has really ended up being a proxy. Therefore, you've got this sort of strong solid core of right-wing voters, but Netanyahu himself has been a very polarizing figure. And so, these last few elections have been about those who don't want to see Netanyahu remain in power. And so, you saw in this last, the immediately preceding government, you saw that camp win by bringing together really an ideologically and politically disparate group of parties, everything from left-wing peace camp, to right-wing to Islamist party that held together quite remarkably, actually for about a year. But now what you're seeing is really a function of right-wing inclination but essentially, Netanyahu has mastery of the political system where he was really able to unite his camp in a way that the anti-Netanyahu camp just wasn't able to get itself together. Such that, while he united these three small, ultra-right, ultra-nationalist parties to bring them into his coalition, there are a couple of parties on the anti-Netanyahu camp that refused to enter into vote sharing or even coalition agreements with other left-wing parties and didn't pass the threshold. So, it became a numbers game to some extent as well.

Julie Mason: So, what does this mean going forward for Netanyahu's relationship with the U.S. and what kind of public postures he's going to be taking?

Lucy Kurtzer-Ellenbogen: Well, I think this is the big question, you know, people who have watched Netanyahu for years and we have had plenty of years to watch what Netanyahu looks like when he's in power. You know, he was prime minister from ‘96 to '99 and had his comeback in 2009 where he remained at the helm of government until 2021. But people who watch him, he typically for all his hawkish bluster, if I may say, has typically ruled with an eye to as much stability and frankly, military even caution, as possible. The question I think, will be, will he be able to get away with that with the current coalition makeup?

Now there are two things here to look at. One is relationship with the Palestinians and the rest of the Arab world, and those two things itself are different and we can get into that, but the other is, so much of what happened here needs to be read through the lens of Netanyahu's legal plight. He is on trial for charges of bribery, breach of trust, and one of the things Netanyahu wants most of all is for his trial, which is ongoing and can take a really long time in Israel, just the normal course of the legal process, he really wants that trial and the prospect of prison to go away. And he may be able to get that with these ultra-right-wing parties who are willing to push forward legislation to really change the justice system such that that might be a possibility.

Julie Mason: Wow.

Lucy Kurtzer-Ellenbogen: Yeah. So, the question is, as we go into these next few weeks of sort of the negotiations and bargaining for what this government's going to look like, who's going to get ministerships, what is the cost being extracted by these right-wing parties to give Netanyahu what he wants, which is on the legal front?

Julie Mason: Wow. So interesting, such a maneuvering business.

Lucy Kurtzer-Ellenbogen: Yes, indeed.

Julie Mason: Lucy Kurtzer-Ellenbogen, director for Israeli-Palestinian conflict program in the U.S. Institute of Peace. Thank you so much for joining me this morning.

Lucy Kurtzer-Ellenbogen: Thank you.

Julie Mason: Really great to talk.

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