Dispatch

The view from the ground.

Bibi Sees a Path Back to Leadership After Israeli Government Dissolves

But a fifth election in less than four years is more likely to produce deadlock—again.

By , a journalist covering Middle East politics.
Israel's former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks to the media at the Knesset in Jerusalem.
Israel's former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks to the media at the Knesset in Jerusalem.
Former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks to the media at the Knesset in Jerusalem on June 20. OREN BEN HAKOON/AFP via Getty Images

TEL AVIV, Israel—Former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is already plotting his return to power when Israelis go to the polls in October for a fifth election in less than four years, but another deadlock seems to be the more likely outcome—one that would benefit his centrist rival, Yair Lapid.

Netanyahu vowed to “return national pride to the citizens of Israel” after Prime Minister Naftali Bennett announced Monday that he would be dissolving the current government, just a year after it was formed. The announcement triggered a countdown to a new election and raised core questions about the stability and future of the Israeli political system, chief among them: Would Netanyahu, who ruled Israel for 12 consecutive years until he was ousted in 2021, make a quick comeback?

Bibi, as he is widely known, has served as the leader of the opposition in the past year while fighting corruption charges in court. His trial is ongoing and could last several years. There’s no law that prevents him from serving as prime minister while fighting the charges.

TEL AVIV, Israel—Former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is already plotting his return to power when Israelis go to the polls in October for a fifth election in less than four years, but another deadlock seems to be the more likely outcome—one that would benefit his centrist rival, Yair Lapid.

Netanyahu vowed to “return national pride to the citizens of Israel” after Prime Minister Naftali Bennett announced Monday that he would be dissolving the current government, just a year after it was formed. The announcement triggered a countdown to a new election and raised core questions about the stability and future of the Israeli political system, chief among them: Would Netanyahu, who ruled Israel for 12 consecutive years until he was ousted in 2021, make a quick comeback?

Bibi, as he is widely known, has served as the leader of the opposition in the past year while fighting corruption charges in court. His trial is ongoing and could last several years. There’s no law that prevents him from serving as prime minister while fighting the charges.

Netanyahu’s pitch to voters remains much the same: a right-wing nationalist government that includes his own Likud party along with smaller, far-right, and ultra-Orthodox factions.

His main challenger is Lapid, who heads the centrist Yesh Atid party and served as foreign minister in Bennett’s government. Lapid was the architect of the Bennett coalition, which included factions from across the political spectrum and, for the first time, an Arab-Israeli party.

According to the power-sharing agreement he struck with Bennett, Lapid will take over as prime minister once the government is officially dissolved and continue serving in the position until a new government is formed after the election.

In the case of a deadlock—which Israel faced multiple times following recent elections—Lapid would continue in the role of prime minister.

“We need to go back to the idea of Israeli unity, not let the forces of darkness divide us from within,” Lapid said on Monday.

It was a clear reference to the diversity of the ruling coalition of the past year and to what the upcoming election will be about.

“The outgoing coalition will try to present a civil and civilized and friendly face, emphasizing that you can have a different politics in Israel: not the politics of hatred but the politics of cooperation,” said Dahlia Scheindlin, a political strategist. “Lapid even told Bennett he loved him on live television [on Monday] in front of the entire country.”

Netanyahu described the Bennett-Lapid coalition as “the worst government in the history of the country … dependent on terrorist supporters, that gave up on Israel’s security … [and] that endangered the Jewish character of our country.”

The allusions to “terrorist supporters” and the endangerment of Israel’s “Jewish character” are clear dog whistles against the Islamist United Arab List—also known by its Hebrew acronym, Raam—which was a key part of the outgoing ruling coalition. Neither is factual. Raam leader Mansour Abbas has repeatedly condemned terrorist attacks carried out by Palestinians and has recognized Israel as a “Jewish state.” Netanyahu himself negotiated with Abbas in the past to have the party support his own coalition.

Analysts and government officials have held up the political collaboration with Raam over the past year as a paradigm shift and possible harbinger for a more hopeful politics.

“While this government was one of Israel’s shortest to hold office, it played an historical role by including an Arab party in the coalition … and therefore paving the way for the possibility of more inclusion by the Arab minority in the political process and Israeli society as a whole,” said Yohanan Plesner, the president of the Jerusalem-based Israel Democracy Institute.

The government that Bennett helmed was the most diverse in the country’s history, spanning eight parties across the ideological gamut: right-wing ultranationalists, pro-peace leftists, centrists, as well as Raam.

As Bennett and Lapid were addressing the nation on Monday, the lights in the briefing room at the Prime Minister’s Office went out, before flickering back on again.

“How symbolic,” Lapid, standing next to Bennett, quipped.

“In the past year, the light went on, and Israelis from the right and left saw that it’s possible to work together,” Bennett added, undeterred. “This memory … that we’re not as divided as they try to tell us, can’t be turned back. It’ll be seared in our consciousness.”

Yet the ruling coalition was ultimately undone by infighting in recent weeks between its right- and left-wing components, with the final straw being its inability to pass a routine bill to reextend Israeli law to Jewish settlers living in the West Bank.

With elections now in the offing, the emergency regulations governing Israeli civilian life in the West Bank will be automatically extended for several months, avoiding a situation of legal chaos in the occupied territory.

Invoking the Judgment of Solomon from the Hebrew Bible, Bennett said, “We chose to be the mother that protects the life of the baby, even at a high personal cost.”

Likud, along with its far-right and ultra-Orthodox partners, has been rising in most recent polls. Yet it remains unclear, analysts stress, whether they all together can secure an outright parliamentary majority, an objective that eluded Netanyahu through four successive (and largely inconclusive) elections between 2019 and 2021.

“I’m not sure that Netanyahu has an easy path to 61 [seats, a parliamentary majority],” Scheindlin said. “He’ll surely use the anti-Arab card, but he’s been doing that for years anyway. And you can expect him to hammer his opponents as ‘dangerous,’ ‘left-wing,’ ‘terrorists,’ and the like.”

The one difference this time around is that it will be Lapid as the incumbent prime minister and not Netanyahu.

“The myth of Netanyahu as this global statesman that’s on another level has dissipated,” one senior Israeli government official told Foreign Policy. “Lapid has been doing it [as foreign minister] just as well as Netanyahu ever did.”

As prime minister, Lapid will now be put to the test in one of the most unforgiving jobs, in the middle of a harsh election campaign, and with his partner, Bennett, rumored to be considering retirement, according to Israeli news reports.

Ben Caspit, a prominent columnist for the Maariv daily, wrote on Tuesday: “The upcoming elections will be the final and decisive battle for the State of Israel. In one corner will be Israel’s image as a democratic country in the spirit of the Declaration of Independence. In the other corner will be the Netanyahu and Bibi-ism cult in all its might. The side that is defeated will probably never recover.”

That is, if there’s actually a winner. The decision by Bennett and Lapid to dissolve their own government and take the country to another election “is a clear indication that Israel’s worst political crisis did not end when this government was sworn into office,” Plesner added, “but rather merely receded, only to return when this coalition failed to find a way to continue moving forward.”

Neri Zilber is a journalist covering Middle East politics and an adjunct fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. He is the co-author of State with No Army, Army with No State: Evolution of the Palestinian Authority Security Forces, 1994-2018. Twitter: @NeriZilber

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