Chaos in Israel Gives New Chance to Old Face: Benjamin Netanyahu

CAIRO — A potentially devastating defection from Israel’s fragile governing coalition this week has thrown a political lifeline to Benjamin Netanyahu, the country’s longest-serving prime minister, who lost office last June when the current government was formed.

The resignation Thursday of a lawmaker, the second in a month, gave the opposition a narrow two-seat majority, technically enough for it to dissolve Parliament in a vote that it could pursue as soon as next week. That would lead to Israel’s fifth election in three years, giving Mr. Netanyahu, currently the opposition leader, a chance to win enough seats to return him as prime minister at the head of an alliance that analysts believe would be among the most right-wing in Israeli history.

His restoration would end an ambitious political experiment that brought together an unusually diverse coalition of eight ideologically incompatible political parties who, at least until recently, often compromised in order to prolong the life of their government.

Under Mr. Netanyahu, that diversity would likely be replaced by a much more homogeneous alliance, returning far-right and ultra-Orthodox lawmakers to a cabinet in which Mr. Netanyahu, who has promised to oppose full Palestinian sovereignty, would be among the most moderate members.

This result is still uncertain: Ghaida Rinawie Zoabi, the left-wing lawmaker who left the coalition Thursday, may oppose the vote for new elections, even if she remains outside government. And should Israel hold another election, polling data suggests any outcome is possible. Just as four previous elections from 2019 through 2021 ended with no clear winner, a new vote may again end in another parliamentary deadlock. The opposition could also form a government without Mr. Netanyahu at the helm.

Right-wing protesters at an anti-government rally in April, following several Arab attacks on Israelis.Credit…Abir Sultan/EPA, via Shutterstock

Mr. Netanyahu is nevertheless still closer to returning to power than at any point since losing it last summer.

In January, he was considering accepting a plea deal in his long-running corruption trial, the terms of which might have forced him to leave frontline politics for several years. But recent events have improved his prospects: In court this week, his prosecutors were embarrassed by inconsistencies in a key state witness’s testimony, prompting the prosecution to ask to change the wording of Mr. Netanyahu’s indictment.

In Parliament, Mr. Netanyahu is now just days away from being able to call for a vote that could collapse the government, then place him in prime position to succeed it.

“Netanyahu is permanently poised to make a comeback,” said Anshel Pfeffer, the author of “Bibi,” a biography of Mr. Netanyahu. “Israel hasn’t changed, it’s still split down the middle between his supporters and detractors, so another election is just another throw of dice to see if he can finally eke out his elusive majority.”

Were he to win, it would mark a remarkable comeback for a politician who has defined 21st-century Israel more than any other. In his last spell in office, which lasted for 12 years, Mr. Netanyahu oversaw Israeli society’s shift to the right and presided over the collapse of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, while cementing a diplomatic détente with parts of the Arab world. Critics said he undercut the rule of law by remaining in government while under prosecution for corruption, a decision that divided the Israeli right.

Over the past year, Mr. Netanyahu and his right-wing party, Likud, have brought Israel to the brink of new elections through a strategy reminiscent of the one employed in the United States by the Republican Party, analysts say.

He has relentlessly attacked the government’s legitimacy by accusing it of defrauding the electorate. And he has undermined the government’s ability to function by refusing to work with it on any new legislation, even on matters of shared interest.

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, right, and Foreign Minister Yair Lapid in Jerusalem on May 15. Mr. Netanyahu has attacked Mr. Bennett as a fraud for forming a coalition with the left.Credit…Pool photo by Abir Sultan

Mr. Netanyahu has stopped short of saying Naftali Bennett, his successor as prime minister, stole the election last March. But he has repeatedly argued that Mr. Bennett deceived the Israeli public by running as a right-winger and then forming a coalition with the left. Amid a surge in Arab attacks on Israeli civilians, he has rejected calls for national unity by regularly criticizing Mr. Bennett, accusing the latter of leaving Israel more vulnerable to violence by allying with Arab lawmakers.

To undercut the government, Likud has voted against right-wing policies it had previously long supported. In the most prominent example, last July, the party rejected efforts by Mr. Bennett’s administration to extend a ban on Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza gaining Israeli citizenship or residency through marriage to Arab Israelis — a provision it had previously backed. Currently, Likud is blocking a government bill that would subsidize tuition fees for army veterans, even though several of the party’s lawmakers have backed the concept.

“There is a comparison to Trump,” said Mitchell Barak, a political analyst, pollster and former aide to Mr. Netanyahu. “There is no such thing as bipartisan for Netanyahu when trying to bring down this government,” he added.

Mr. Netanyahu’s main line of attack, however, has been specific to Israel. He and Likud have targeted the right-wing members of the coalition, portraying them as frauds for joining the government, the first to include an independent Arab party — Raam. After months of such criticism, one right-wing coalition lawmaker, Idit Silman, defected in April, saying that the government had endangered Israel’s Jewish character.

In turn, Likud’s critics have accused the party of incitement and hypocrisy.

Mr. Netanyahu courted the Arab vote ahead of last year’s election and Raam’s leader, Mansour Abbas, said Mr. Netanyahu privately lobbied to persuade the Arab party to back a Netanyahu-led coalition.

Muslim worshippers at prayer on the last Friday of Ramadan at the Aqsa mosque compound in Jerusalem last month.Credit…Alaa Badarneh/EPA, via Shutterstock

Against the backdrop of Mr. Netanyahu’s harsh rhetoric, groups of protesters regularly heckle right-wing members of the coalition outside their homes and even at memorial events. A supporter of Mr. Netanyahu’s was arrested in May for sending two bullets to members of Mr. Bennett’s family.

A senior Likud lawmaker, Miki Zohar, said the party opposed violence, had not incited its supporters, and that Mr. Netanyahu himself had been the victim of incitement while in office. He also said that Likud had only asked Raam to support a vote of confidence in Mr. Netanyahu as prime minister, but had never offered the party a place in a coalition government.

“Our strategy was very simple,” Mr. Zohar said. “We try to do everything we can to convince people from this coalition to withdraw from it.” He added: “We want to go to the people and ask for their support to give us the majority for Jewish rule here in Israel.”

Likud’s efforts received a mild boost this week, when the prosecution in Mr. Netanyahu’s long-running corruption trial asked to update his indictment after a key witness conceded during cross-examination that there were inconsistencies in testimony he had given to the police.

Mr. Netanyahu has been on trial since 2020, accused of offering favorable business conditions to the owners of major media outlets in exchange for positive media coverage, and accepting gifts in exchange for political favors. The charges, which Mr. Netanyahu denies, are at the heart of why fellow right-wingers like Mr. Bennett split with him and formed a government with their political opponents.

Mr. Netanyahu in the Parliament on May 9. If he does return as prime minister, some commentators believe his comeback could be short-lived.Credit…Maya Alleruzzo/Associated Press

Should those charges lose credibility during the court proceedings, it might make it easier for Mr. Netanyahu to persuade some of his former allies to return to the fold.

But the trial will likely drag on for years, meaning that it will have little further impact on Parliament’s decision to hold a vote on dissolution next week. In an interview, Ms. Rinawie Zoabi said she had not yet decided whether to vote for new elections, while Mr. Zohar said that Likud was still unsure if it would push for a vote it may not win.

Even if a vote is held, and Mr. Netanyahu does subsequently return as prime minister, some commentators believe his comeback could be short-lived.

“In the long term, Netanyahu will discover that the path he chose to walk will lead him to a dead end,” Ari Shavit, an Israeli journalist, wrote in a commentary for Makor Rishon, a right-wing newspaper. “His uncompromising nationalism will be viewed by many center-right voters as boundless egotism. His fanatic nationalism will scare and frighten off hundreds of thousands.”

He added: “When it emerges that Bibi can no longer control the fire that he set, he himself will be burned.”

Hiba Yazbek contributed reporting.