A year after ousting, Israel’s Netanyahu gets ready for a comeback

Bethan McKernan & Quique Kierszenbaum

The Guardian /  June 13, 2022

Analysis: the ex-prime minister is eager to exploit the weakness in the fraying coalition that replaced him.

On 13 June 2021, Benjamin Netanyahu made his final address to the Knesset as prime minister. In a proud and bitter half-hour speech, he recounted his successes during 12 years in power and warned of existential threats facing Israel under the incoming coalition government. He also stressed that his conservative Likud party would be back in office soon.

“I will lead you in a daily battle against this bad, dangerous, leftwing government to topple it,” Netanyahu cried, amid heckling and jeers from the plenum. “With God’s help, that will happen much sooner than you think.”

Just one year later, the corruption scandal-plagued former leader could be about to achieve exactly that.

The ambitious experiment in Israeli governance – a coalition of eight parties that overcame significant ideological differences in banding together to oust Netanyahu and end years of political deadlock – is struggling to function.

An agreement to focus on areas of common ground and avoid divisive issues such as the occupation of the Palestinian territories has come unstuck. A defection in April destroyed its narrow majority, and now almost every week the prime minister, Naftali Bennett, finds himself pressuring other wavering elements of the coalition not to torpedo important bills or sink his fragile government.

If just one more renegade member quits, the coalition is unlikely to survive the no-confidence vote that Likud will immediately table, and the opposition could call for new elections.

In the meantime, the government’s internal divisions have resulted in a chaotic Knesset. Last week, left-leaning members of the coalition were persuaded to vote in favour of a bill extending legal protections for Israeli settlers in the occupied West Bank, while the rightwing opposition – which ideologically supported the bill – voted against, leading to a government defeat by a four-vote margin.

“For 12 years we had governments that weakened faith in democracy and the rule of law,” said Knesset member (MK) Gaby Lasky, a human rights lawyer and member of the coalition’s leftwing Meretz party, who voted in favour of the legislation in order to avoid undermining the government.

“We are making our voice heard in the plenum but we are a minority in the government and a minority in society,” she said. “I must admit that it’s more complicated than I thought to make even a small step.”

Netanyahu has capitalized on the coalition’s disunity by encouraging the opposition to vote against every bill the coalition proposes, no matter its content, in order to further paralyze his rivals.

Now, the patience of right-leaning parties such as justice minster Gideon Saar’s New Hope is wearing thin: if that pro-settlement faction abandons the coalition, Netanyahu could seek to form a new government without the need for new elections.

“Basically we are in the same position as a year ago. The opposition’s voting discipline means that we are still dealing with the choice of Bibi, or not Bibi,” said Na’ama Lazimi, an MK for the government’s centre-left Labor party, using Netanyahu’s well-known nickname.

“It is hard to plan for even one month ahead under these circumstances … considering that we have achieved a lot, but we need more time to really change things.”

Bennett’s government can claim some successes: it formed a historic coalition, which for the first time includes members of an independent Arab party; it has managed to pass overdue budgets, guided Israel through the latter stages of the pandemic, made amends with a judiciary much maligned by Netanyahu, and reset relations with western partners in the US and Europe.

The prevailing assessment among the public and inside the Knesset building, however, is that the coalition will be lucky to make it to the end of the summer session intact.

“The current Knesset is a topsy-turvy world. The coalition wanted to keep Netanyahu out of the prime minister’s office, and they did that, but there’s no other common denominator,” said Yuli-Yoel Edelstein, a Likud MK and former speaker of the Knesset.

“They can’t govern, so they should step aside. There’s a country to run and what is happening right now is hurting Israeli politics.”

Netanyahu’s route back to office is becoming clearer, but is not certain just yet. The Likud leader is still on trial for corruption, and he has alienated key parts of his voter base with actions such as voting down the settler legislation. The 72-year-old could also face a leadership challenge from within Likud’s ranks.

Recent polling suggests that 39% of Israelis would rather go back to the polls for the country’s fifth election since 2019 rather than continue with the current government or form a new one from within the current Knesset – but if an election were held now, it is unlikely the centre-left bloc led by the foreign minister, Yair Lapid, nor Netanyahu’s rightwing-religious bloc would win an outright majority.

“On one hand it is important to be part of the decision-making process, and to have Arab representation in the Knesset,” said Ahmad Tibi, the leader of the opposition’s Arab-majority Ta’al party.

“On the other, I am sad to say that this coalition experiment was premature. The left and Ra’am [the coalition’s Arab bloc] will be destroyed in the next elections for betraying their voters and their principles. I told [Mansour Abbas, Ra’am’s leader] before: if you don’t want to swim with the sharks, don’t get in the water.”

Bethan McKernan is Jerusalem correspondent for The Guardian

Quique Kierszenbaum in Jerusalem