In the closing days of his last term as prime minister of Israel – a little over a year ago – Benjamin Netanyahu made no secret of his disdain for President Biden.
In an effort to salvage his political neck, Netanyahu has suggested that Biden has been soft on some of Israel’s staunch enemies, Iran and the Palestinian movement Hamas, and vowed to defy Democratic-led Washington if necessary.
On Wednesday, Netanyahu emerged as a likely choice for a senior government position in Israel once again, after the country’s fifth election in four years. His right-wing bloc, which includes ultra-nationalists and far-right, appears to have a large majority in the Knesset or parliament.
“Today, we won a landslide vote of confidence,” Netanyahu announced early Wednesday morning to cheers from his Likud supporters. Many chanted, “Bibi, King of Israel!” using his familiar nickname.
The results, if proven correct, are sure to complicate Israel’s relationship with the United States.
Having already made history as the longest-serving prime minister and is currently on trial for corruption, Netanyahu is best known for Biden’s predecessor, President Trump.
Trump, in turn, showered Netanyahu with praise – including reversing decades of US policy by moving the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem – and nudged Israel’s admiration alliance closer to the Republican camp in what has always been a bipartisan relationship. .
“This should complicate relations with the US administration,” said Shira Efron, director of research at the US-based Israel Policy Forum. She noted that Biden and Netanyahu have a long personal friendship but a long list of differences. She said the problems would be rooted in “both character and politics,” from expanding settlements in the occupied West Bank to curtailing democracy and civil rights.
“Make no mistake: this is a weak time for Israel,” Eric Yoffe, an American rabbi and former president of the Reform Judaism Federation, told Haaretz.
He and others noted Netanyahu’s alliance with Itamar Ben Gvir, a far-right MK known for his anti-Arab rhetoric and proposals to deport Arabs from Israel.
“Ben Gvir’s emergence as an important political player in Israel will undermine the country’s public standing in America, strengthen Israel’s enemies and insult its friends,” Yoffe said.
For now, US officials remain cautious in their public statements, noting that results are not expected until Friday, praising the high turnout in Tuesday’s vote and pledging to work with any Israeli government “on our shared interests and values.”
It may take weeks of negotiations until the next Israeli government is formed. US State Department spokesman Ned Price said it was too early to comment on any potential government members or policy.
But he described a vision of the government that critics of Netanyahu say contrasts sharply with much of the rhetoric that has come out of the political campaign of Netanyahu and his allies.
“We hope that all Israeli government officials will continue to share the values of an open democratic society, including tolerance and respect for all in civil society, especially minorities,” Price said. He reiterated the United States’ commitment to a “two-state solution” to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict – the establishment of an independent Palestinian state alongside Israel – and “equal measures of security, freedom, justice, and prosperity for Israelis and Palestinians alike.”
In addition to the thorny relationship with the Biden government, the Netanyahu-led coalition will likely have little interest in negotiations with the Palestinians over territory and independence and could also halt the expansion of Israel’s new relations with the Gulf Arab states.
Normalization actually began under Netanyahu, who negotiated the so-called Abraham Accords, which opened the way for trade and business opportunities.
The current Israeli government had hoped to form a military alliance with some of those former enemy states. But experts said such an initiative – what some have called NATO in the Middle East – would likely not be on the table if Netanyahu’s government was seen as too radical or anti-Arab.
Some Gulf governments have insisted that deepening ties would help the Palestinian cause – a justification seriously undermined by Netanyahu’s hard-line stance.
“The fact that his coalition is so right-wing is not a source of comfort for the Gulf monarchies,” said Rabih Barakat, an analyst at the American University of Beirut.
“The UAE and Saudi Arabia are using their soft power to instill the idea that normalization is where a better future for the region lies,” he said. “With Netanyahu, there will be complications.”
And some of Israel’s closest geographical neighbors are preparing for what promises a stormy period ahead.
One particularly sensitive case is Lebanon. The two countries have been at war for years, but were still able to demarcate their maritime borders in a historic US-brokered deal that included Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid and then-Lebanese President Michel Aoun. It was signed last month, and also received the tacit blessing of Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shiite armed group and political party that plays a dominant role in Lebanese politics and fought a war with Israel in 2006.
In the run-up to the elections, Netanyahu denounced the agreement, saying it was “illegal” and that if elected, he would “neutralize it.”
Jordan is also unlikely to welcome a feisty leader whose previous tenure was marked by rock bottom in the two countries’ longstanding cooperation on energy and water and the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem’s Old City, Islam’s third holiest site, to return to the kingdom’s custody rights.
Jordan also has a large Palestinian refugee population and is a staunch supporter of a two-state solution.
Relations rapidly improved after Netanyahu’s ouster, with Lapid making a rare visit in July to Jordan’s King Abdullah II at his Amman palace in July.
But Marwan Muasher, a former Jordanian foreign minister who served as ambassador to Israel in the 1990s, said the return of a right-wing government that includes “racist elements” would require a “serious reassessment” of relations.
“This is clearly a government that is not at all serious about the peace process, and certainly does not intend to enter into any kind of negotiations, let alone withdraw from the occupied territories, and it will deal with the occupied Arabs and even the Arab citizens of Israel in a racist way.”
“The election of this government will poison the atmosphere of the region,” Muasher said.
Gideon Rahat, a senior fellow at the Jerusalem-based Institute for Israel Democracy, said Israel and the United States may turn to perceived threats to Israeli democracy.
Netanyahu’s coalition partners have called for reforms that would weaken the independence of the judiciary by impeding the ability of the Israeli Supreme Court to undo parliament’s work by repealing laws. Leaders of the religious Zionism faction allied to Netanyahu, led by Ben Gvir, also voiced support for the penal code’s striking out the crime of “fraud and breach of trust” that Netanyahu faces in his corruption trial, saying it was used to target politicians.
“If democracy deteriorates in Israel, the United States may not be happy about it,” Rahat said.
Netanyahu is accused in his corruption trial of using his position to promote regulations that have benefited a media company financially in exchange for favorable news coverage. He has maintained his innocence.
Ibrahim Dalsha, director of the Horizon Center for Palestinian Political Research in the West Bank city of Ramallah, said Netanyahu’s potential return to power leaves the Palestinians with little hope of peace negotiations.
“It’s a déjà vu of the political deadlock…in the era of Netanyahu,” he said.
Israeli voter Abraham Granit, an 85-year-old retired colonel who lives in the central city of Ra’anana, was more optimistic. He said he was not concerned about the relations between the United States and Israel, noting that the two countries have been powerful allies for decades.
He said, “The relationship between Israel and the United States in general does not depend on who the prime minister is.”
But Granite, who voted for the religious Zionism faction, said he would ask Biden to support Israel’s policy of building more settlements in the occupied West Bank, where he has two children and 17 grandchildren who live in one of those settlements. The Biden administration views the settlements as an obstacle to peace, and much of the world considers them illegal.
Miller wrote from Ra’anana, Paulus from Beirut, and Wilkinson from Washington.