‘Bibi v no Bibi’: Israel’s voters split on comeback of scandal-hit Netanyahu

'King Bibi' (AFP)

Bethan McKernan

The Observer  /  October 23, 2022

Benjamin Netanyahu’s chances of returning to office in this week’s elections depend on alliance with far-right.

Everyone in the small courtroom on the second floor of Jerusalem’s district court is tired of straining their necks to look at the decade-old receipts for whiskey, cognac and cigars displayed on a screen. Even the key witness in one of former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s three corruption trials, is clearly bored with answering questions about how often her boss used to send expensive presents to Israel’s long-time leader.

The 73-year-old’s absence hangs over the proceedings in much the same way his pugnacious brand of politics still haunts Israeli public life. While the panel of judges peered at slide after slide of photocopied invoices on that warm day in September, the subject of their investigation was already out on the campaign trail, executing his comeback.

Next week, Israel will hold its fifth election in less than four years. As with every other poll since the political crisis largely triggered by allegations of breach of trust, bribery and fraud against Netanyahu, who was formally indicted in 2019, the vote on 1 November is a referendum on whether the head of the rightwing Likud party is the right person to lead the country.

Five elections later, the Israeli public still can’t make up its mind. Opinion polls consistently predict Netanyahu’s bloc of rightwing and religious parties will again fall one or two seats short of winning a Knesset majority – but the former prime minster is running a sophisticated campaign, and has forged controversial new alliances in his effort to return for an unprecedented third stint in office.

His personal and political futures are intertwined: becoming prime minister again is likely to be the easiest way to escape the consequences of his criminal trial.

“The Bibi vs no Bibi blocs have broken the political distinctions that existed for decades in Israeli politics,” said Eran Amsalem, an assistant professor of communication at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, using Netanyahu’s well-known moniker.

“Several of the major parties are not ideologically too distant from the Likud in terms of economic or security policy. No one says: ‘We are against Likud.’ They are all against Bibi,” he said.

Netanyahu’s scandal-plagued 12-year-long premiership finally came to an end in June 2021, after a coalition of eight parties, some with little else in common, got together to remove him.

It proved difficult, however, for the government to overcome its ideological incoherence. During his year in the wilderness as leader of the opposition, Netanyahu capitalized on the coalition’s disunity, encouraging opposition parties to vote against every bill the government proposed.

The ambitious experiment collapsed just a year later after losing its razor-thin majority, damaging the credibility of its leftwing party members, who voted in favour of legislation entrenching the occupation of the Palestinian territories.

This time around, several factors are still in play: depending on voter turnout in the Arab 20% of the population, and whether the struggling Jewish Home party can clear the Knesset threshold of 3.25%, either bloc could eke out a narrow victory.

The most significant difference between November’s election and the four before it, however, is the rise of far-right politician Itamar Ben-Gvir and his Religious Zionist ticket.

Ben-Gvir, a former disciple of terrorist Rabbi Meir Kahane, became famous as a teenager for stealing the hood ornament from the car of prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, one of the architects of the Oslo peace process of the 1990s.

“Just as we got to his car, we’ll get to him too,” he told a TV news crew. The prime minister was assassinated by a Jewish extremist weeks later.

Ben-Gvir built a legal career defending Jewish suspects charged with terrorism and hate crime, and has been indicted himself more than 50 times for incitement. Several attempts to join the Knesset succeeded in 2021, when his alliance won six seats. Since then, the extremist politician has become more and more popular, picking up votes from a recently disbanded right-wing list.

Ben-Gvir’s slate is currently expected to win the third-largest share of the vote in November’s election. His rise is partly thanks to Netanyahu, who has courted the far right over recent years and has reportedly promised the former lawyer a cabinet position in his next government. The Religious Zionist party’s newly announced “law and justice” proposal to reform the Israeli judiciary has been widely interpreted as an attempt to overturn the former prime minister’s corruption cases.

But Ben-Gvir’s growing popularity has irked Netanyahu too. Israeli media recently reported that he demanded his list receives the justice, security and finance portfolios, and at a holiday event in Kfar Chabad last week security guards were sent to get the would-be coalition partner off the stage before Netanyahu came on, so the former prime minister could avoid being photographed together.

Palestinian citizens of Israel and international observers are horrified at the prospect of Ben-Gvir becoming a cabinet minister: he has repeatedly called for Arab Israelis who are “disloyal” to the state to be expelled. Robert Menendez, chair of the US senate committee on foreign relations, has reportedly warned Netanyahu that including extreme-right politicians in a potential future government would harm relations between Washington and Tel Aviv.

But for many voters on Israel’s right whom the Observer spoke to in West Jerusalem’s colourful Meyhane Yehuda market, a definitive end to the political deadlock – even if it means the formation of the most extremist government in Israeli history – is the preferred option.

“I have been a Likud supporter all my life. I don’t care who is prime minister, I care that they can do the job,” said Abraham Levy, a 73-year-old greengrocer. A large portrait of Menachem Begin, the party’s founder, hangs on the back wall of his shop.

“People support Bibi more because of his trial. They say, ‘Oh, he smoked some cigars’, but so what? Other prime ministers were taking envelopes of cash. It needs to end.”

Many on the Israeli centre and left – as well as rivals within the Likud – are hopeful that November’s election will be the last in which Netanyahu stands. Amsalem, the Hebrew University professor, is not so sure.

“People keep thinking Bibi will quit, or go for a settlement or a plea deal, but he decided to stay within the political system because it’s better for him to maintain a public platform. The trial is going to last a long time. Even if he’s convicted, he can appeal,” he said. “I think Netanyahu really believes he can win, he can figure it out. For him, it’s a matter of survival.”

Bethan McKernan is Jerusalem correspondent for The Guardian