Israel’s “King Bibi” plans his comeback

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At the beginning of the year, the political career of former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu appeared to be over. Relegated to the opposition and facing a corruption trial, he agonized over a plea deal that would have kept him out of jail but also sidelined him from political life for seven years.

The deal was never completed. As this process proceeds at breakneck speed, Netanyahu is plotting his comeback amid a political crisis that has rocked the ruling coalition that toppled him last year.

In early April, an MP from Prime Minister Naftali Bennett’s own party defected to the opposition, wiping out the coalition’s parliamentary majority. Netanyahu has promised that more such defectors are on the horizon.

Netanyahu has returned in full force to public life and social media, where he constantly attacks Bennett for being “weak” on security and “cheating” his way to power. For the first time since his ouster, the former prime minister serenaded thousands of supporters at a right-wing rally in Jerusalem this month by “Bibi, King of Israel.”

“We must not wait for the next terrorist attack or shooting,” Netanyahu said this week, alluding to a recent spate of Palestinian attacks in Israeli cities. “We must immediately form a strong right-wing government under my leadership to restore security and calm.”

After 12 straight years as prime minister – and 15 in all from the 1990s – Netanyahu, 72, remains the country’s most popular politician, overtaking Bennett and deputy prime minister and foreign minister Yair Lapid. Netanyahu’s Likud party also leads in all polls. Netanyahu has made comebacks before, regaining power in 2009 after spending a decade largely in the political wilderness.

Benjamin Netanyahu (right) speaks with his lawyer before a hearing in his corruption trial © Reuven Castro/Pool/AFP/Getty Images

However, most analysts and pollsters remain skeptical that he can now, after losing four consecutive elections between 2019 and 2021, win an outright majority in parliament.

After last year’s fourth largely inconclusive vote, Bennett formed an eight-party coalition made up of right-wing religious nationalists, pro-peace leftists, centrists and an independent Arab-Israeli Islamist party. Almost the only thing they agreed on was the need to replace Netanyahu – a transgression that Netanyahu’s supporters have not forgiven.

“Many of Netanyahu’s base truly believe that he was unjustly expelled by a cabal of elites who manipulated various state institutions such as the court system to trample on the true will of the people,” said Dahlia Scheindlin, a political strategist. “They also believe that it is dangerous for the country if the right-wing does not lead.” Referring to the recent Palestinian attacks, Netanyahu said: “When terror smells weakness, it raises its head”. (Bennett and most other military analysts matter-of-factly countered that there have been far worse security crises under Netanyahu’s rule.)

Almost two years after it officially began, the bribery, fraud and breach of trust trial is still in the midst of testimony in the first of three trials. Netanyahu has maintained his innocence and has claimed a vast “left deep state” conspiracy.

Netanyahu, according to Scheindlin, has done his utmost to encourage this sense of shared victimhood, particularly in historically marginalized segments of Israeli society, such as the religious believers and mizrachi Jews of Middle Eastern origin.

“It’s a cult of personality, but not a whole cult,” Scheindlin added. “Netanyahu has got people under his spell, and he plays with the truth quickly and easily.” Bennett has accused Netanyahu of spreading “fake news and lies” and using his “whole machine” and “army” of online trolls and for sending media mouthpieces to attack him.

The prime minister also claimed that Netanyahu’s deputy put “inhumane” pressure on defector party member Idit Silman and her family – including harassment at her children’s school – which eventually led them to “break in”. This week, a live bullet was sent to the workplace of Bennett’s wife, threatening her and their children, and their teenage son directly. The police and the internal security service have initiated investigations.

Despite losing the ruling coalition’s parliamentary majority, even Likud officials concede that Netanyahu has no alternative government available. According to former Likud minister Tzachi Hanegbi, the best one can hope for is that several more defectors emerge and parliament dissolves itself and triggers snap elections. “The coalition position of ‘just not Bibi’ is unlikely to change,” Hanegbi said.

Likud has turned down the possibility of replacing Netanyahu, who could theoretically pave the way back to power by persuading other parties to join him in a coalition. Yuli Edelstein, a former speaker of the parliament, said he will challenge Netanyahu in any future Likud leadership contest. But most polls show he will lose to Netanyahu in a defeat.

“It’s not in the Likud’s DNA to replace its leaders, who have all retired voluntarily, and we won’t be giving any directives about who is leading us anyway,” Hanegbi added. “Netanyahu enjoys very broad popular support, he wants to stay, he has the energy and he didn’t give up [his opponents] break his spirit.”

According to pollster Rafi Smith, who has worked with Netanyahu on his recent campaigns, voter loyalty to a Netanyahu-led Likud remains “extremely high” in any upcoming election. “There is a strong connection [that these voters] I feel for him that the Likud is their home and Netanyahu their leader,” Smith said.

Still, like other pollsters, Smith saw no fundamental change if Netanyahu succeeds in forcing another election. In the April 2021 election, Netanyahu and his “bloc” of allied far-right and ultra-Orthodox parties were some 70,000 votes short of winning an absolute parliamentary majority, out of more than 4 million votes cast.

Netanyahu “probably feels he can get close to that again, run a better campaign and with a little nudge” win a majority, Smith said. “But he’s not here at the moment.”

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