Last week, Israel’s fifth parliamentary elections in four years secured a dramatic political comeback for former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who returns to power after losing to a broad coalition from across Israel’s political spectrum in elections held last year. Netanyahu is set to form a government that will include the ultra-nationalist Religious Zionism party led by Itamar Ben-Gvir and Bezalel Smotrich, both widely considered to be right-wing extremists. The two are expected to hold Cabinet positions, causing alarm in Israel as well as among its allies and partners, and leaving Netanyahu with a difficult balancing act when it comes to managing foreign relations and advancing his government’s domestic priorities.
By virtue of the 14 seats it won in last week’s elections, the Religious Zionism party will be the third-largest delegation in the Israeli parliament. Ben-Gvir, a former follower of the racist, ultra-nationalist politician Meir Kahane, is notorious for his anti-Arab rhetoric and was convicted in 2007 of incitement to racism and supporting a terrorist organization. Smotrich, too, is also known for his anti-Arab views, having expressed regret that Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben Gurion, did not “finish the job” by expelling all Arabs from the territory that became Israel. Both Ben-Gvir and Smotrich now stand on the cusp of major ministerial positions in the new Netanyahu-led Cabinet.
In the run-up to last week’s elections, it was reported that the United Arab Emirates’ foreign minister, Abdullah bin Zayed, warned Netanyahu during a visit to Tel Aviv against including Ben-Gvir and Smotrich in his government in the event Netanyahu was tasked with forming a coalition after the Nov. 1 poll. Although bin Zayed’s office did not corroborate the reports, it did not deny them either, leading many in the Israeli media to suggest that a new Netanyahu government that includes Ben-Gvir and Smotrich would cause problems for bilateral relations between Israel and the UAE. Formal diplomatic ties between the two countries were established two years ago by the Abraham Accords, an effort spearheaded at the time by Netanyahu and bin Zayed on behalf of their respective governments. The two men also signed the agreement in 2020 when Netanyahu was prime minister.