Netanyahu Again at the Center as Israel Heads for Elections

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

Charismatic and divisive former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was impeached 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 a decade-long hold on power.

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

Even before the Knesset held its first preliminary vote on Wednesday to proliferate, Netanyahu, aka “Bibi”, couldn’t stop beaming.

“The wind has changed,” a cheering Netanyahu, who heads the Israeli opposition and the largest right-wing party, the Likud, told reporters Monday night after Prime Minister Naftali Bennett announced he would dissolve his government.

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

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

Anyway, Israel’s most famous living politician, who had a backseat role for the past year, is now back in the spotlight.

Supporters of Netanyahu, 72, often portray him as the only Israeli politician capable of leading the country, and he capitalizes on that image of the country’s savior, often taking polarizing stances and portraying his rivals as enemies.

He is admired by many for campaigning against Iran’s nuclear program and a state-of-the-art Covid-19 vaccine program, supporting Jewish settlements in occupied Palestinian territory, help alleviate Israel’s isolation in the Arab world by working to normalize ties with Arab Kingdoms in the Gulf and for his close friendship with former president Donald Trump

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Netanyahu had a strong relationship with former President Donald Trump.Doug Mills/Pool via Getty Images file

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

“Either you love Bibi or you don’t love Bibi,” said Professor Gideon Rahat, a political scientist at the Hebrew University.

A long-running corruption The matter will hang over Netanyahu in the upcoming election, as it has in the past four votes.

The divisional issues among the electorate have been and will be more about personality than ideology, said Rahat, who said the majority of Israeli voters voted for right-wing parties in the last election and is likely to do so again in the upcoming elections.

“It’s about Netanyahu shuffling the cards over and over until he will win,” he added.

Netanyahu can effectively hold Israeli politics hostage: He has enough support from the right to prevent his rivals from forming an alternative right-wing coalition, while those of the centrist and left-wing parties also lack sufficient popularity to form a government, Rahat said.

Opinion polls in recent days show that the right has gotten even stronger and much of that growth has been among those who wanted to support Netanyahu, while right-wing parties that didn’t want to sit in government with him had lost support.

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

Netanyahu himself, despite his optimistic comments, has hedged his bets and is engaged in intense efforts to use a legislative option that would allow him to form a new coalition that puts him at the helm of the government.

“For some rightists,” a Netanyahu-led nationalist government is “a dream about to come true,” Bushinsky said. “They see the light at the end of the tunnel, where they will have a majority… ultra-religious, right-wing coalition and they don’t have to compromise with any other party, not from the left, not anti-religious, not even a center party.”

The concern of many centrists and those on the left of the country is that if Netanyahu were to form an all-right nationalist coalition, it would pass legislation that is harmful to Israeli democracy.

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

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

Netanyahu’s closest rival is Secretary of State Yair Lapid, of the centrist Yesh Atid party, whose support has also grown, and who has emerged as the second most popular leader in recent elections and polls. He is to become interim prime minister.

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

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