As yesterday’s votes are still being calculated, Israeli politicians are preparing for the coalition negotiations that will determine who will be the next prime minister. One of the frontrunners is Benjamin Netanyahu, whose Likud party depends crucially on the support of the Religious Zionism party, led by Bezalel Smotrich, to obtain the 61 Knesset seats necessary to form a government. But, notes Haviv Rettig Gur, as much as those who vote for Smotrich are implicitly signifying their support for Netanyahu, the relationship between the two politicians has become increasingly tense:
Over the last four races, rightwing parties ran at Netanyahu’s side with the insistence that Netanyahu was the right man to lead Israel. But in this fifth race, after four failures at the ballot box and growing frustration with his inability to deliver a victory, a profound change has come over the Netanyahu camp. More and more, the campaigns of rightwing parties have focused not on Netanyahu’s strengths but on his weaknesses. For growing portions of the Israeli right, Netanyahu is seen as a failure—not just electorally, but on policy issues too.
It was under Netanyahu, not [his successor Naftali] Bennett, that May 2021’s internecine fighting between Arabs and Jews tore apart mixed towns like Lod and drew bitter excoriation from rightwing constituencies, especially in those poorer regions of the country where Mizraḥi Jewish and Arab communities live in an uneasy coexistence.
On the Palestinian front, continuing waves of persistent low-level terror attacks, including occasional bursts of Gazan rocket fire, raised new complaints in working-class towns near the Strip about Netanyahu’s longtime policy of ensuring stability in Gaza by allowing Qatar to fund Hamas.
Smotrich and [his far-right coalition partner] Itamar Ben-Gvir see Netanyahu as weak and they intend—they are not shy on the point; it’s their central campaign message—to be unrelenting in their pressure to force Netanyahu rightward once he’s returned to the prime minister’s chair.
As a result, writes Gur, the campaign run by Smotrich and Ben-Gvir amounts to “an uprising wrapped in a bear hug.”