Israel’s government collapsed this week and new elections will take place some time this autumn.
And the winner is: Benjamin Netanyahu?
Netanyahu, a five-time prime minister, has governed Israel for 15 of the past 26 years. Out of power for a year, he’s eager for another try, despite corruption charges pending in court, the disdain of Israel’s political class and a bombastic public personality that makes more enemies than friends.
What elements favor a comeback? First, his Likud party remains the country’s biggest. Second, the ongoing rightward shift of Israel’s politics helps keeps Netanyahu at center stage.
And third, Netanyahu’s political longevity reflects wide agreement on a couple of fundamental issues important to many Israelis – security and economic development – that he has championed.
Netanyahu resolutely opposes establishment of a Palestinian state, favors expansion of Israeli settlements in the West Bank, and opposes US efforts to negotiate with Iran over that country’s development a nuclear arsenal. Netanyahu thinks the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) wasn’t tough enough on Tehran.
This will be Israel’s fifth election in three years. Somehow, the country has been able to digest the political uncertainties without social or economic upheaval.
The long-running conflict with the Palestinians continues without end, yet it has become somehow digested within day-to-day Israeli life. Walls separate Israeli and Palestinian society and periodic violence has not degenerated into the combat of years past.
In addition, there exists no grand scheme to replace the moribund “two-state solution,” in which a Palestinian state encompassing the West Bank and Gaza Strip would exist alongside Israel and end the conflict.
Israeli settlements and Palestinian towns and villages cohabit in the West Bank, where Arab enclaves are governed by the Palestinian Authority, heir to the Palestine Liberation Organization. The Gaza Strip, under control of the Islamic Resistance Movement (Hamas) stands apart from Israel in implacable opposition.
The Palestinian enclaves are also separated from the Israelis by high walls, military checkpoints and seething resentment.
The lack of a negotiated solution to the conflict is in part testimony to Netanyahu’s opposition to Palestinian statehood. He once headed an organization named “Jordan Is Palestine,” suggesting Palestinians should move from the Holy Land into the territory of its Arab neighbor.
Israel’s economic landscape is shaped by a shift to free-market economics, a departure from the country’s social-democratic past. Market economics was embraced by a succession of governments since the 1980s and which have provided steady growth.
Last year, the economy grew by more than 8%. It is likely to expand by more than 5% this year, despite worldwide dislocations brought on by the Ukraine war and continuing Covid disruptions. Netanyahu’s deft management of anti-Covid vaccines kept lockdowns to a minimum.
A diverse coalition ousted him from power a year ago, but collapsed on Monday. It was headed by Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, who is also an opponent of Palestinian statehood and proponent of free-wheeling capitalism. The coalition was a hodge-podge of right-wing nationalists, centrists, an anemic left-wing party and an Arab grouping – the first time in the country’s history that Israeli Arabs joined a ruling cabinet.
However, the glue that held together the diverse coalition was based on one primary ingredient: hatred of Bibi, as Netanyahu is known in Israel. That was insufficient to keep it together for long. Defections from the right, from the left and also by the Arabs stripped the coalition of majority support in parliament.
Netanyahu greeted news of the collapse with glee. “This evening people are smiling,” he said. “A government that depended on terror supporters, which abandoned the personal security of the citizens of Israel, that raised the cost of living to unheard-of heights, that imposed unnecessary taxes, that endangered our Jewish entity. This government is going home.”
Headlines contemplated Netanyahu’s possible return to power as much as they remarked on the fate of Bennett and his allies. “Netanyahu and the Right Are About to Regain Power,” read one. “Bennett Failed as an Alternative to Netanyahu” read another. “Netanyahu is Back,” declared a third.
Writing on the Atlantic Council website, analyst Noga Tarnopolsky offered a gloomy view of Israel’s near-term political future, even should Netanyahu fail to regain power.
“It goes without saying that Netanyahu is not back, but it is also true that Israel still lives in a Netanyahu world. Here, political reality is filtered through his lens,” she wrote.
Until an election takes place, probably in October, and a new government is formed, Foreign Minister Yair Lapid, a former talk-show host, will head the interim cabinet.
Unlike Bennett and Netanyahu, Lapid favors a two-state solution, though it’s unclear how that would square with the settlements, whose Israeli population now tops 620,000. Lapid recently rejected US government calls to scrap plans to build almost 4,000 units of new settlement housing.
“Israel is a sovereign state and does not ask for permission to operate in its territory,” Lapid said.
His time as interim prime minister, however brief, gives him an opportunity to audition for the top job in the future, especially if Netanyahu’s bid fails.
During his tryout, he could get a boost from US President Joe Biden, who is scheduled to visit Israel next month.
Biden resents Netanyahu’s opposition to the proposed Iran nuclear deal and also his rapport with Donald Trump.
On his visit to Israel, Biden will have a chance to take a swipe at Netanyahu, by praising Lapid, a likely rival of Netanyahu’s in the coming election – and steering clear of Bibi altogether.