Despite Corruption Trial, Netanyahu Set to Return to Power in Israel

Published: 03 November 2022

Benjamin Netanyahu 2019 cropped Netanyahu won’t be the only one in the bloc with corruption issues to deal with. (Photo: Matty Stern, Wikimedia, License)

By David Klein

Despite an ongoing corruption trial, Benjamin Netanyahu retook his old seat as prime minister on Thursday after Israel’s latest round of elections two days earlier.

Netanyahu was ousted from power less than a year ago over the same corruption accusations and although most pundits had predicted a strong performance from him and his Likud party, he appears to have outstripped all expectations. 

With his right-wing bloc set to command 64 of the Knesset’s 120 seats, his new government will have a buffer to avoid the complex coalition building struggle which had mired Israel with five elections in the last four years. 

Netanyahu was indicted in 2019 on bribery and fraud charges and has been investigated on suspicion of receiving inappropriate favors from major Israeli businessmen and for an attempt to strike a deal with a major media outlet, promoting legislation that would weaken its competitor in exchange for favorable coverage. 

Between a three-year-term in the 1990s and another 12 years from 2009 to 2021, Netanyahu is Israel’s longest serving prime minister, but the corruption cases led a broad coalition from right-wing Jewish parties to the center left and even an Islamist Arab party to rally together and oust Netanyahu in the fall of 2021. 

The coalition’s premiership was organized as a rotation between Naftali Bennet, leader of the rightwing Yamina (lit. “The Right”) party and Yair Lapid, of the centrist Yesh Atid (“There is a future”) Party. However, it dissolved itself in June due to disputes about the future of Israeli settlements in the West Bank. 

Another notable result of Tuesday's elections is that the third largest party in the Knesset is set to be the Religious Zionism party which is led by the controversial Bezalel Smotrich and Itamar Ben-Gvir. 

Both Smotrich and Ben-Gvir, whose party Oztma Yehudit (“Jewish Power”) joined with another far right party to make the Religious Zionist list, have been widely criticized for their racism against Israel’s Arab population, homophobia and support of policies that many have termed ethnic cleansing.  

Ben-Gvir began his political career as follower of the extremist American-born Rabbi Meir Kahane and took part in the youth movement of Kahane’s Ka”Ch party in Israel. 

Ka”Ch would be banned from Israeli politics in the 1980s after several attacks by it’s members on Israeli Arabs. Both it, and it’s American affiliate, the Jewish Defense League, are considered terrorist organizations by both the Israeli and American governments, due to both the actions in Israel and a bombing campaign the JDL pursued against Soviet properties in the U.S. at the height of the Soviet Jewry movement in the 1970s. Kahane himself was assassinated in New York City in 1990. 

Ben-Gvir reportedly kept in his home a portrait of Baruch Goldstein, the Kahanist gunman who fired on Muslim worshipers at the cave of the patriarchs in Hebron, massacring 29 Palestinians and wounding 125 more in 1994. In his law career Ben-Gvir made a name for himself defending Israeli extremists like Goldstein, and had threatened Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, just two weeks before another far right extremist, Yigal Amir assassinated him for attempting to negotiate an end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. 

As a powerful force in Netanyahu’s coalition, Ben-Gvir has publicly set his sights on the office of security minister. 

At the current count, the ruling government will consist of Likud with 30 seats, Religious Zionism with 15, and the Ultra-Orthodox Sha”S and United Torah Judaism (UTJ) parties with 11 and 8 seats respectively. 

Netanyahu won’t be the only one in the block with corruption issues to deal with. 

Aryeh Deri, the leader of Sha”S resigned from the Knesset in January as part of a plea deal to avoid jail time for tax offenses. Deri had spent two years in jail from 2000-2002 after he was convicted of accepting some US$155,000 in bribes during his first term as interior minister from 1992-1993.

Sha”s, (an Acronym for “Shomrei Sepharad,” literally “the Guardians of Spain”) an ultra-Orthodox party representing Israeli Jews from Middle Eastern and North African backgrounds - many of whose ancestors were expelled from the Iberian peninsula in 1492 - has widespread support not just amongst ultra-Orthodox enclaves but also more secular Israeli Jews of MENA backgrounds, who make up a slight majority of Israeli Jews. 

UTJ, which represents Israeli Ultra-Orthodox groups of Eastern European or “Ashkenazi” backgrounds, also saw its former leader, Yaakov Litzmann, who was health minister under Netanyahu’s previous governments leave the party just before the last election cycle. Litzmann then accepted a plea deal in January 2022, for his criminal role in helping Malka Leifer avoid extradition to Australia. 

Leifer, the former principal of ultra-Orthodox girls school in Melbourne has ben charged with 70 counts of sexual abuse towards students. She will face trial in Australia later this year. 

Despite joining a coalition with Nationalist Parties like Likud and Religious Zionism, UTJ explicitly identifies as a non-Zionist party, in line with many ultra-Orthodox Jew’s views on the validity of the state of Israel’s Jewish identity. 

Between Religious Zionism, Sha”s and UTJ, explicitly  religious parties will account for 33 seats in the Knesset, the strongest bloc they’ve had since the country’s founding in 1948. 

In contrast, the left-wing, secular-leaning Israeli Labor Party, whose early leaders like David Ben Gurion, Levi Eshkol and Golda Meir are considered to be Israel’s founding fathers and mothers, and who dominated the political scene in the area from the British Mandate period through the first three decades of the Jewish state, barely squeaked by the electoral threshold of 3.25%, netting only 4 seats.