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 for another try despite corruption charges pending in court, general disdain from Israel’s political class and his possession of a bombastic public personality in league with an admirer, ex-US President Donald Trump blush.
What elements favor a comeback? One, his Likud Party remains the country’s biggest. Two, the ongoing rightward shift of Israel’s politics helps keeps Netanyahu at center stage.
And three, 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’s over the Islamic state’s development a nuclear arsenal; Netanyahu thinks talks are inadequately tough 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 periotic violence has not degenerated into 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 co-habit 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 on its own.
The Palestinian enclaves are also separated from e Israelis by high walls, military checkpoints and seething resentments. 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 and into the territory of its Arab neighbor.
Israel’s economic landscape is dominated by devotion to free-markets economics, embraced by a succession of governments since the 1980s and which have provided steady growth.
Last year, the economy grew by more than eight per cent. It is likely to expand by more than five per cent 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. Headed by Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, who is also an opponent of Palestinian statehood and proponent of free-wheeling capitalism, it collapsed Monday. The coalition was a hodge-podge of right-wing nationalists, centrists, an anemic left-wing party and an Arab grouping– the first time in Israel’s history that Israeli Arabs join a ruling cabinet.
However, the glue that held together the diverse coalition was based on one primary ingredient: despise of Bibi, as Netanyahu is known in Israel. That wasn insufficient to keep it together for long. Defections from the right, the left and also by the Arabs, robbed the coalition of majority support in parliament.
Netanyahu greeted news of the collapse with glee, mixing standard politics with elements of fear. “This evening people are smiling,” Netanyahu 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 Netanyahiu’s possible return to power as much as they remarked in 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.
The Atlantic Council website took a disapproving view of the 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,” the article read.
Until an election takes place, probably in October, and a new government formed, Foreign Minister Yair Lapid, a former talk show host, will head the interim cabinet.
Unlike Bennett and Netanyahu, he 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 dos 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 resident Joe Biden, who is scheduled to visit Israel next month.
Biden resents Netanyahu’s opposition to the possible Iran nuclear deal and also his rapport with Donald Trump. He also did not include him in early phone calls to foreign powers after he took office in January 2021.
On his visit to Israel, Biden will have a chance to take a swipe a Netanyahu through subtle indirection. He can praise Lapid, a likely rival of Netanyahu’s in the coming election–and steering clear of Bibi altogether.