Chaos in Israel gives new chance to Benjamin Netanyahu

Former Israeli PM and current opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu during an anti-government protest on April 6, 2022. PHOTO: AFP

CAIRO (NYTIMES) - A potentially devastating defection from Israel's fragile governing coalition this week has thrown a political lifeline to Benjamin Netanyahu, the country's longest-serving prime minister, who lost office last June when the current government was formed.

The resignation on Thursday (May 19) of a lawmaker, the second in a month, gave the opposition a narrow two-seat majority - technically enough for it to dissolve Parliament in a vote that it could pursue as soon as next week. That would lead to Israel's fifth election in three years, giving Netanyahu, currently the opposition leader, a chance to win enough seats to return him as prime minister at the head of an alliance that analysts believe would be among the most right-wing in Israeli history.

His restoration would end an ambitious political experiment that brought together an unusually diverse coalition of eight ideologically incompatible political parties who, at least until recently, often compromised in order to prolong the life of their government.

Under Netanyahu, that diversity would likely be replaced by a much more homogeneous alliance, returning far-right and ultra-Orthodox lawmakers to a Cabinet in which Netanyahu, who has promised to oppose full Palestinian sovereignty, would be among the most moderate members.

This result is still uncertain: Ghaida Rinawie Zoabi, the left-wing lawmaker who left the coalition on Thursday, may oppose the vote for new elections, even if she remains outside government.

And should Israel hold another election, polling data suggests any outcome is possible. Just as four previous elections from 2019 through 2021 ended with no clear winner, a new vote may again end in another parliamentary deadlock. The opposition could also form a government without Netanyahu at the helm.

Netanyahu is nevertheless still closer to returning to power than at any point since losing it in the summer.

In January, he was considering accepting a plea deal in his long-running corruption trial, the terms of which might have forced him to leave front-line politics for several years.

But recent events have improved his prospects: In court this week, his prosecutors were embarrassed by inconsistencies in a key state witness's testimony, prompting the prosecution to ask to change the wording of Netanyahu's indictment.

In Parliament, Netanyahu is now just days away from being able to call for a vote that could collapse the government, then place him in prime position to succeed it.

"Netanyahu is permanently poised to make a comeback," said Anshel Pfeffer, author of "Bibi", a biography of Netanyahu. "Israel hasn't changed - it's still split down the middle between his supporters and detractors - so another election is just another throw of dice to see if he can finally eke out his elusive majority."

Were he to win, it would mark a remarkable comeback for a politician who has defined 21st-century Israel more than any other. In his last spell in office, which lasted for 12 years, Netanyahu oversaw Israeli society's shift to the right and presided over the collapse of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, while cementing a diplomatic détente with parts of the Arab world. Critics said he undercut the rule of law by remaining in government while under prosecution for corruption, a decision that divided the Israeli right.

Over the past year, Netanyahu and his right-wing party, Likud, have brought Israel to the brink of new elections through a strategy reminiscent of the one employed in the United States by the Republican Party, analysts say.

He has relentlessly attacked the government's legitimacy by accusing it of defrauding the electorate. And he has undermined the government's ability to function by refusing to work with it on any new legislation, even on matters of shared interest.

Netanyahu has stopped short of saying Naftali Bennett, his successor as prime minister, stole the election last March. But he has repeatedly argued that Bennett deceived the Israeli public by running as a right-winger and then forming a coalition with the left.

Amid a surge in Arab attacks on Israeli civilians, he has rejected calls for national unity by regularly criticising Bennett, accusing the latter of leaving Israel more vulnerable to violence by allying with Arab lawmakers.

To undercut the government, Likud has voted against right-wing policies it had previously long supported. In the most prominent example, in July, the party rejected efforts by Bennett's administration to extend a ban on Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza gaining Israeli citizenship or residency through marriage to Arab Israelis - a provision it had previously backed.

Currently, Likud is blocking a government bill that would subsidise tuition fees for army veterans, even though several of the party's lawmakers have backed the concept.

"There is a comparison to Trump," said Mitchell Barak, a political analyst, pollster and former aide to Netanyahu. "There is no such thing as bipartisan for Netanyahu when trying to bring down this government," he added.

Netanyahu's main line of attack, however, has been specific to Israel. He and Likud have targeted the right-wing members of the coalition, portraying them as frauds for joining the government, the first to include an independent Arab party: Raam. After months of such criticism, one right-wing coalition lawmaker, Idit Silman, defected in April, saying that the government had endangered Israel's Jewish character.

In turn, Likud's critics have accused the party of incitement and hypocrisy.

Even if a vote is held and Netanyahu does subsequently return as prime minister, some commentators believe his comeback could be short-lived.

"In the long term, Netanyahu will discover that the path he chose to walk will lead him to a dead end," Ari Shavit, an Israeli journalist, wrote in a commentary for Makor Rishon, a right-wing newspaper. "His uncompromising nationalism will be viewed by many centre-right voters as boundless egotism. His fanatic nationalism will scare and frighten off hundreds of thousands." He added, "When it emerges that Bibi can no longer control the fire that he set, he himself will be burned."

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