The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Netanyahu poised for possible return to power, dividing Israel again

Former Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu is seen on an election banner in Tel Aviv on Thursday. The text reads: “Only Likud can.” (Oded Balilty/AP)

JERUSALEM — The unusual Israeli government that was formed last June had one job: to pry Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu from the prime minister’s office.

Netanyahu was clinging to power after four inconclusive elections, fighting multiple corruption indictments and, critics say, wreaking havoc on Israel’s democratic institutions. In stepped the unlikely “change coalition” of right-wing, left-wing and Arab parties that agreed on almost nothing but the need to oust Netanyahu and pull Israel out of its spiraling political crises.

It did work. They formed a government, freezing Netanyahu out of power for the first time in 12 years, but it didn’t last.

A year and a half later, Bibi is back on the campaign trail, along with the political deadlock that paralyzed the country for most of the past four years.

The new government, while passing a budget and giving Israel something of a respite from political chaos, collapsed after a year of infighting and defections. On Nov. 1, Israel will have its fifth election in 43 months, and Netanyahu is right where he was before: angling to win a majority of parliamentary seats for his Likud party and a coalition of extreme right-wing and ultra-Orthodox parties.

He could do it. Israel’s electorate remains split between those who see Netanyahu as the caustic and corrupt “crime minister” and those who hail him as “King Bibi,” a savvy Svengali whose only crime is driving his opponents crazy.

Polls leading up to the vote suggest that the underlying political dynamic remains much the same. The pro-Bibi and anybody-but-Bibi camps are neck and neck.

“We are still a hung country,” said pollster Dahlia Scheindlin. “It’s remarkably stable.”

Predictably, the two sides have opposite views of what a Netanyahu comeback would mean for Israel’s future. His critics warn of existential harm to Israeli democracy.

“Should Netanyahu win this election, Israel will be like Hungary,” said Gayil Talshir, a political scientist at Hebrew University and the author of a forthcoming book on Netanyahu. “This is a very dangerous moment, from the point of view of democracy and the rule of the law.”

As Netanyahu’s trial on bribery, fraud and breach-of-trust indictments unfolds in a Jerusalem court — with no verdicts expected for a year or more — he and some of his supporters have waged a scorched-earth campaign against the judges and prosecutors involved, some of whom he appointed. His allies support changing the law to prohibit the prosecution of a sitting prime minister. One of Netanyahu’s partner factions, the Religious Zionism party, is running on a platform of abolishing the crime of fraud and breach of trust.

“He wants to disable the judicial system and the critical mediating bodies in Israel,” Talshir said. “He would like to be the sole ruler.”

But his supporters celebrate Netanyahu as the leader who modernized Israel’s economy, held his own among world leaders and presided over recent diplomatic breakthroughs between Israel and Arab nations in the Persian Gulf and North Africa.

“People here understand that he is considered a statesman,” said Abe Katsman, a Seattle-born Jerusalem attorney who serves as counsel for Republicans Abroad Israel. “They understand he is not universally loved by the world’s leaders, but he is respected.”

Under the administration of President Donald Trump, Netanyahu largely based his campaigns on his close relationship with Trump. The two share a bombastic style — Netanyahu dismisses the charges against him as a “witch hunt” — and the liberal-conservative divide underlying Israel’s political schism is similar to the one afflicting the United States.

Warnings that Netanyahu would dismantle the rule of law are overblown, Katsman said, and ignore concerns about what conservative Israelis see as a politically motivated prosecution by a court system dominated by a liberal elite.

“The threat of reform, to put it in American terms, is to the judicial-activist wing of the judiciary,” he said.

As in the previous four elections, Netanyahu’s faction appears to be hovering just shy of an outright majority of 61 seats in the Knesset, Israel’s parliament. And, as before, the victor probably will not be known on election night but only after weeks of jockeying among potential coalition partners.

Whether another coalition can emerge to block Netanyahu will depend on the final vote count and the distribution of seats among the 40 parties running.

The outgoing “change coalition” — which was assembled by Prime Minister Yair Lapid, a centrist, and former prime minister Naftali Bennett, a right-wing former settler leader — has fractured beyond repair. Bennett says he is stepping away from politics. The remnants of his Yamina party may not win enough seats to enter parliament at all.

Lapid, who heads the government, is hoping his allies on the left, including the vestiges of Israel’s once-dominant Labor Party, along with parties representing Russian and Eastern European immigrants, will get him close to a majority.

To cross the threshold, Lapid may once more need the backing of Arab parties that represent the Palestinian citizens of Israel, who make up about 20 percent of the population. It was one of these parties, Ra’am, a conservative Islamist faction, that put the change coalition over the top last time, in what was an unprecedented level of government involvement for an Arab party.

Young Palestinians arm themselves for a new era of violent resistance

But Ra’am’s participation was controversial among Palestinians; the Arab parties are splintered and predicted to fall well short of their 2019 high-water mark of 15 Knesset seats. The level of turnout among Palestinian voters will be one of the determining factors in how the coalition horse trading unfolds, said Scheindlin, the pollster.

One potential new coalition could crystallize around Benny Gantz, the current defense minister and former army chief of staff. Gantz is signaling a turn to the right and a partnership with disaffected Likud members and others — including some Jewish settlers in the West Bank — who want a right-wing government but are fed up with Netanyahu.

Gantz also has made overtures to the ultra-Orthodox parties, which frequently are the kingmakers in Israeli coalitions but lost power when Netanyahu was ousted. These Haredi parties, which have watched their influence on social issues and financial support for Talmudic scholars eroded under the current government, may be willing to jump ship if Netanyahu is blocked from office again.

Netanyahu, meanwhile, is doubling down on his alliance with Israel’s ultranationalist fringe. In 2021, his embrace of Itamar Ben Gvir, a lawyer with roots in the Kach party, which was banned for advocating violence, gave Ben Gvir’s party its first seats in the Knesset. Now Ben Gvir, who has advocated for expelling “disloyal” Arabs from Israel and the occupied territories, has become one of the most popular campaigners for the Netanyahu bloc.

Critics and supporters alike predict that this will be Netanyahu’s final attempt at a comeback. He is 72 and was hospitalized for a night earlier this month after complaining of chest pain. (He appeared in a video the next morning where he jogged briefly and said he was healthy.)

Even more, the rumbles of discontent within Likud have grown steadily louder among loyalists who believe they could easily win a majority under a less-polarizing leader.

“If he loses this time, I think there will be demands from within the party that he step down from the role of party leader,” Katsman said.

In the meantime, Netanyahu has stepped up campaign appearances in the last days before the vote in a bid to end his long absence from office — all 16 months of it.

correction

A photo caption in a previous version of this article incorrectly translated a political banner as “Netanyahu, strong right wing for four years.” The correct translation is “Only Likud can.” The article has been corrected.

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