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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Israeli government collapse gives Netanyahu another chance at power

Then Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during the Knesset session in Jerusalem, on June, 13, 2021.

By Patrick Kingsley and Isabel Kershner

News of the Israeli government’s collapse was barely an hour old, but Benjamin Netanyahu, the opposition leader and former prime minister, had already declared that he was heading back to power.

“My friends and I will form a national government,” Netanyahu said in a video posted hastily online Monday night, before Prime Minister Naftali Bennett had even made a formal resignation speech.

“A government that will take care of you, all of the citizens of Israel, with no exceptions,” Netanyahu added.

His claim was premature. A new election — Israel’s fifth in less than four years — will not be held until the fall, and could conclude without any bloc winning a majority. Parliament has also yet to be dissolved, and most likely won’t be until next Monday.

And as a parting shot before an election campaign, lawmakers might pass a law barring criminal defendants from becoming prime minister. That could affect Netanyahu, who is in the middle of a yearslong corruption trial.

Nevertheless, the possibility of Netanyahu’s returning to office is now stronger than at any point since he left it last June.

Israel’s longest-serving prime minister, Netanyahu now has the chance to add to his previous 15 years in power, a tenure in which he shaped contemporary Israeli discourse and priorities more than any other figure. During his earlier stints, he pushed Israeli society to the right, encouraged popular mistrust of the judiciary and the media, and accelerated Israel’s acceptance within the Middle East while overseeing the collapse of Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations.

Like supporters of Donald Trump, Netanyahu’s base did not abandon him even after he lost power.

In a new election, polling suggests, Netanyahu’s right-wing party, Likud, would easily win more seats than any other. His wider alliance of right-wing and religious parties, though short of an overall majority, would still be the largest in Parliament. And some right-wing lawmakers who refused to return him to power last year might change their minds in the fall, giving him control of Parliament.

To his supporters, that would herald the return of strong right-wing governance to Israel, after a turbulent year in which the country has been run by a fragile coalition of eight ideologically incompatible parties — including both Jewish and Arab lawmakers — who were united only by their opposition to Netanyahu himself.

To his detractors, however, the prospect of his return is worrying. A new Netanyahu government would most likely hinge on the support of a far-right party that could demand control of the ministry overseeing the police force in exchange for its loyalty.

Netanyahu’s own party has spent the past year undermining the concept of Jewish-Arab partnership, hinting at radical changes to the judicial system, and even at times promising revenge on its political opponents.

Netanyahu himself has denied that he would use a return to government to disrupt his prosecution, implying that he would be happy to stand trial — a process that is expected to last for several more years — while running the country.

But one Likud lawmaker and Netanyahu loyalist, Shlomo Karhi, said this year that he would work to replace the attorney general, the senior government official who oversees Netanyahu’s prosecution. And another Likud lawmaker and former minister, David Amsalem, said this month that “anyone who does not intend to change, first and foremost, our sick and biased judicial system, has nothing to look for in the Likud.”

“Once we break the bones of the left wing, we will explain to them that we know how to run this country a little bit better,” Amsalem said in a separate radio interview this month.

To Ben Caspit, a biographer of Netanyahu, this kind of rhetoric raises concerns about the prospect of a new Netanyahu-led government. “Israeli democracy would really, really be in danger,” said Caspit, a political commentator.

“The only thing that interests him is stopping his trial,” he said.

Some Netanyahu allies dismiss this talk as alarmism.

“Fake predictions,” said Tzachi Hanegbi, a veteran Likud lawmaker and former minister. “They cannot fault Netanyahu on security or the economy,” Hanegbi said. “So what can they talk about?”

To some leftists and many Palestinians, meanwhile, a new Netanyahu government would not be much worse than the current one.

Bennett has a unifying manner and formed a governing alliance with an independent Arab party for the first time in Israeli history. But on many fundamental issues, he agrees with Netanyahu. A former settler leader, Bennett opposes a Palestinian state, maintained a blockade on the Gaza Strip, and approved the construction of thousands of new settlement units in the occupied West Bank.

Ultimately, Bennett said, he decided to bring down his own government to prevent the collapse of a two-tier legal system in the West Bank that distinguishes between Israeli settlers and Palestinians. Some liken it to apartheid.

Ghassan Khatib, a Palestinian political analyst and former Palestinian minister, said, “The current government might be different in certain views and positions, but in practice it wasn’t different at all.”

“They had the same political attitude: no to a Palestinian state, no to negotiations,” he said. “And they continued with settlement expansion as fast as they could.”

The current and former governments also had similar approaches to the wider Middle East. Both sought to build new diplomatic ties with Arab countries that had long isolated Israel, and both opposed U.S.-led efforts to give sanctions relief to Iran if Iranian officials agreed to temper their nuclear enrichment program.

But to many Israelis, there is a clear difference between a right-wing government led by Netanyahu and the diverse current coalition led by Bennett and his centrist partner, Yair Lapid, who is set to become a caretaker prime minister during the election campaign.

Despite coming from opposing political camps, Bennett and Lapid built a partnership based on compromise and civility, which supporters saw as a sharp contrast to Likud’s bullish divisiveness.

During their speeches Monday to announce the government’s collapse, the two men displayed respect, affection and admiration for each other even as they brought about the end of their joint project. “I really love you,” Lapid told Bennett during an unscripted moment.

In practical terms, their government also got Israel moving again after a period of paralysis under Netanyahu, who lacked a big enough parliamentary majority during his final two years in power to fulfill certain basic functions of government.

Bennett’s administration passed Israel’s first national budget in more than three years; tried to reduce food costs by removing tariffs on food imports; began to liberalize the regulation of kosher food; and filled several key vacancies in the senior echelons of the civil service that had been left empty under Netanyahu.

The Bennett government presided over one of the quietest periods in Gaza in several years, encouraging militants there to restrict their rocket fire on southern Israel by offering thousands of new work permits to Gazan residents.

The government also improved relations with the Biden administration, while still opposing some administration goals, like the Iran nuclear deal or the reopening of an American consulate in Jerusalem to Palestinians.

Netanyahu is not a shoo-in for the next prime minister, any more than he was in four elections from 2019 to 2021. Each time, he was unable to form a majority coalition with other parties, or failed to honor commitments to them when he did.

This new election may be no different, said Professor Gideon Rahat, a political scientist at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

“We’ve been in this movie four times and we can get similar results a fifth time,” Rahat said.

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