The staying power of ‘King Bibi’, Israel’s scandal-ridden political behemoth

'King Bibi' (AFP)

Bethan McKernan

The Guardian  /  November 2, 2022

Former PM appears likely to form next government, mostly thanks to alliance with Religious Zionists.

Don’t call it a comeback. Benjamin Netanyahu was booted from office last summer by a broad coalition united by their distaste for the conservative Likud leader. But after Tuesday’s election – an unprecedented fifth poll in less than four years – the short-lived “government of change” is probably going to prove no more than a brief intermission in the political behemoth’s long career.

With 80% of votes counted on Wednesday, but official results not due until next week, Bibi, as he is commonly known, appears the most likely candidate to form a new government.

Several small left-wing parties may yet clear the electoral threshold, erasing his right-wing religious bloc’s lead of 65 seats in the 120-seat Knesset. But even if that happens, Netanyahu still would not be out of the running. Coalition horse-trading could last for weeks, and if it failed, a sixth election would be held next year.

Israel’s political crisis since 2019 was triggered by allegations of bribery, fraud and breach of trust against Netanyahu, whose last stint as prime minister lasted 12 years. He has denied all the charges in his ongoing corruption trial, but the case has polarised Israeli society.

To his ardent supporters, “King Bibi” is a strong, tested leader unfairly prosecuted by a biased establishment. To detractors, his vilification of the judicial system has undermined trust in public institutions and the rule of law, paving the way for the astonishing rise of his new far-right ally, the Religious Zionist party, which doubled its number of seats.

Many from across the political spectrum had hoped that the 73-year-old would eventually stop standing for the good of the politically fractured country. But it was never likely he would give up.

Netanyahu’s probable success is mostly thanks to the Religious Zionists, formerly three fringe extremist parties that he persuaded to merge into one slate before the 2021 election. In doing so, he may have opened Pandora’s box.

This time round, its radical ideas – expelling “disloyal” Palestinian citizens of Israel and annexing the occupied West Bank – have been greeted with enthusiasm from an increasingly right-wing Israeli public.

The former prime minister insists it is nothing to do with him that his new ally has proposed sweeping changes to the penal code that would help get his trial thrown out.

“Over his previous two stints in office, Bibi has preferred to form coalitions with centrist or centre-left parties, but he’s made too many enemies and broken too many promises for that to happen again now,” said Eran Amsalem, an assistant professor of communication at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. “He’s stuck with the far right, whether he likes it or not.”