Netanyahu back on center stage as Israel heads toward elections

JERUSALEM — With tired familiarity, Israelis are preparing for their fifth election in less than four years. But at least one man is jubilant at the prospect of a new vote and a possible new chapter in a remarkable political life.

Charismatic and divisive former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was ousted last year by a fragile coalition of rivals from the right, center and left who came together in an effort to break his more than decade-long grip on power.

Now that the government has collapsed, it opens the door for Netanyahu to return to power on a right-wing nationalist ticket.

Even before the Knesset held its first preliminary vote on Wednesday to disperse, Netanyahu, also known as “Bibi,” couldn’t stop smiling.

“The winds have turned,” a jubilant Netanyahu, who heads Israel’s opposition and its biggest right-wing party, Likud, told reporters Monday night after Prime Minister Naftali Bennett announced he would dissolve his government. .

Protesters wave national flags displaying the image of Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem on April 20.Menahem Kahana/AFP via Getty Images

“We are prepared for the elections and we are very confident in our ability to win them,” added the skilled speaker who has dominated politics for a quarter of a century and sat in the prime minister’s office for a total of 15 years. Behind the scenes, however, he is working on a legislative shortcut that would allow him to form a new government without elections.

Either way, Israel’s most famous living politician, who has played a supporting role for the past year, is now back in the spotlight.

Supporters of the 72-year-old Netanyahu often portray him as the only Israeli politician capable of leading the country, and he capitalizes on that image of the nation’s savior, often choosing polarized stances and portraying his rivals as enemies.

He is admired by many for campaigning against Iran’s nuclear program, launching a cutting-edge Covid-19 vaccine program, supporting Jewish settlements in the occupied Palestinian territory, helping to alleviate Israel’s isolation in the Arab world by working to normalize ties with the Gulf Arab kingdoms, and by his close friendship with former President Donald Trump.

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Netanyahu enjoyed a strong relationship with former President Donald Trump.File by Doug Mills/Pool via Getty Images

His critics accuse him of eroding the country’s democratic foundations by seeking to weaken judicial independence, strengthen right-wing extremism and boost the state’s Jewish identity at the expense of its Arab citizens.

“Either you like Bibi, or you don’t like Bibi,” said Hebrew University political science professor Gideon Rahat.

A long-standing corruption The case hangs over Netanyahu during the upcoming elections, as it has during the last four votes.

The issues dividing the electorate have been and will be more about personality than ideology, said Rahat, who said most Israeli voters chose right-wing parties in the last election and are likely to do so again in the next one.

“This is about Netanyahu shuffling the cards again and again until he wins,” Rahat added.

Netanyahu can effectively hold Israeli politics hostage: he has enough support on the right to prevent his rivals from creating an alternative right-wing coalition, while the center and left parties also lack enough popularity to form a government, Rahat said.

Polls in recent days show that the right has grown stronger still and much of that growth was among those who would support Netanyahu, while right-wing parties that did not want to sit in a government with him had lost support.

“The center moved to the right, the right went more to the right and the far right went to the far right,” said political strategist Aviv Bushinsky, a former chief of staff and adviser to Netanyahu.

Netanyahu himself, despite his optimistic comments, has closed his bets and is in the midst of intense efforts to make use of a legislative option that would allow him to form a new coalition that would put him at the head of the government.

“For some right-wingers” a Netanyahu-led nationalist government “is a dream about to come true,” Bushinksy said. “They see the light at the end of the tunnel, where they will have a majority…an ultra-religious right-wing coalition and they don’t need to compromise with any other party, neither left nor anti-religious. , not even a center party”.

The concern of many centrists and on the country’s left is that if Netanyahu were to form a far-right nationalist coalition, he would pass legislation detrimental to Israeli democracy.

Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid will become interim prime minister.
Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid will become interim prime minister. Ilia Yefimovich/Picture Alliance via AP

“They could try to limit the power of the courts and the power of other bodies and put centralized power in the hands of the prime minister,” Rahat said.

Netanyahu’s closest rival, Foreign Minister Yair Lapid, from the centrist Yesh Atid party, whose support has also grown, and who in the last elections and in the last polls showed himself as the second most popular leader. He is scheduled to become interim prime minister.

“It’s really a do-or-die campaign for both candidates, Yair Lapid as the new leader of the center and Netanyahu as the right-wing leader for 26 years,” Bushinky said.

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