JERUSALEM — Former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak announced Wednesday that he was returning to the political ring and would seek to topple the incumbent Benjamin Netanyahu as voters prepare for a redo of elections this spring that left the country’s politics deadlocked.
A former military chief of staff, Barak is the only politician who has ever defeated Netanyahu at the polls. Barak, 77, is also the last prime minister to emerge from the left-wing bloc, and his defeat in 2001 led to a succession of right-wing leaders.
In announcing his political return, Barak slammed Netanyahu for leading Israel into “the darkest days we have known,” with Israeli democracy and its judiciary facing unrelenting attacks and racism rampant.
Netanyahu’s camp responded with a terse statement, saying, “We don’t interfere in how the left wing divides its votes.”
Israelis are scheduled to go back to the polls on Sept. 17, less than six months after elections gave Netanyahu and his right-wing bloc a narrow victory but left them unable to form a new government. Following Netanyahu’s failure to attain a majority in Israel’s 120-seat parliament, the Knesset, he diverged from political custom last month, opting to dissolve the legislature and take the country to another round of elections.
But Netanyahu now seems eager to undo the election redo he initiated a month ago. He said in a statement Wednesday that he is considering an initiative by Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein, No. 2 in his Likud party, to draw back from the second election.
Legally and politically, it is unclear whether such a move is possible. But Edelstein said the apparent U-turn was prompted by a growing number of parliamentarians from various political factions who have said the decision to hold another election so soon after the last was a “foolish move.”
“The majority of the public do not want this election, and we need to find a way within the current Knesset to form the widest coalition,” Edelstein told Israel’s Army Radio. He said he might have found a solution and was working, with Netanyahu’s backing, to cancel the September election.
Edelstein’s initiative, however, was treated with skepticism by analysts and Netanyahu’s rivals, who termed it political spin and another way for the formidable leader to deflect from his legal woes to stay in office. Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit has said he plans to indict Netanyahu on corruption charges pending a hearing at which he can defend himself.
Earlier this month, Mandelblit turned down a request from Netanyahu’s lawyers to delay an indictment hearing in three cases alleging fraud, bribery and breach of trust set for Oct. 2.
“Most puzzling decisions or statements made by Netanyahu are usually related to his attempt to postpone his day of judgment in Israeli court,” said Dan Avnon, chairman of the political science department at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. “He feels he needs to be in the office of the prime minister, and anything that will enable that outcome in his eyes is a possibility, even if it sounds far-fetched or impossible.”
As to whether undoing the redo is even possible, professor Abraham Diskin, a senior fellow at Kohelet Policy Forum, a right-wing think tank, said the chances were “very, very, very slim, both because of legal difficulties and also politically.”
“I don’t believe it’s going to happen, but Israel is a country of surprises,” he said.
At a news conference in Tel Aviv on Wednesday, Netanyahu’s main rival, Blue and White party head Benny Gantz, said Netanyahu had “pressed on the button to dissolve the Knesset,” and there is no way out of it.
“Netanyahu tried and failed to form a government, and now he has lost it,” said Gantz, also a former military chief of staff. “He then pushed with all his power and personally voted to dissolve the Knesset, taking Israel to an expensive and unnecessary election.”
Both Likud and Blue and White hold 35 seats in Israel’s parliament. Together, they could create a broad and stable government, but Blue and White Knesset member Yoaz Hendel said such collaboration would happen only if Netanyahu stepped down as prime minister.
“From Day One, we have said it is impossible for a prime minister with legal accusations against him to stay in office,” said Hendel, a former adviser to Netanyahu.
“We also said that Israel should not have a leader who focuses only on himself, and nothing has changed,” he said. “The only thing that has changed is that we can now clearly see that Netanyahu, who had problems creating the next government, only cares about his personal needs and not our national needs.”
Immediately following Barak’s announcement, Israel’s Channel 13 news conducted a poll showing that his new party could gain as many as six seats. That is far fewer than the totals projected for Likud or Blue and White. Barak said he would be willing to join forces with other political factions, including Blue and White and Labor, reinvigorating Israel’s center-left bloc, which has been in disarray for most of the past decade.
This is not the first time Barak has returned to politics since his term as prime minister. After a short hiatus, he was reelected head of the Labor Party in 2007, leading it into the Knesset and joining the government as defense minister, first under Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and later under Netanyahu.