Israel’s ‘King Bibi’ prepares for his return

At the start of the year, former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s political career seemed 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 forced him to abstain from politics for seven years.

The deal was never finalized. As this trial unfolds at a chilling pace, Netanyahu plots his return amid a political crisis that has rocked the ruling coalition that toppled him last year.

In early April, a deputy from Prime Minister Naftali Bennett’s party defected to the opposition, erasing the coalition’s parliamentary majority. Netanyahu has promised that more such defectors are in sight.

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

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

After 12 consecutive years as prime minister — and 15 in total since the 1990s — Netanyahu, 72, remains the country’s most popular politician, ahead of Bennett as well as acting prime minister and foreign minister Yair Lapid. Netanyahu’s Likud party is also leading in all polls. Netanyahu has staged pushbacks before, returning to power in 2009 after a decade spent largely in the political wilderness.

Benjamin Netanyahu, right, talks to his lawyer ahead of a hearing in his corruption trial © Reuven Castro/Pool/-/Getty Images

Yet most analysts and pollsters remain skeptical that he can now succeed where he failed four times in successive elections between 2019 and 2021: winning an outright parliamentary majority.

After the largely inconclusive fourth ballot last year, Bennett formed an eight-party coalition 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 Netanyahu’s supporters have not forgiven.

“Much of Netanyahu’s base truly believes that he was unjustly ousted by a cabal of elites who manipulated various state institutions, such as the judiciary, in order to trample on the true will of the people,” he said. said Dahlia Scheindlin, a political strategist. “They also think it’s dangerous for the country if the right doesn’t lead. Referring to recent Palestinian attacks, Netanyahu said that “when terror smells of weakness, it raises its head.” (Bennett and most other military analysts have actually countered that there were far worse security crises under Netanyahu.)

Nearly two years after its official opening, the trial for bribery, fraud and breach of trust is still only in the midst of testimonies in the first of three cases. Netanyahu has maintained his innocence, alleging a vast “left-wing deep state” conspiracy.

Netanyahu has done all he can to foster this sense of shared victimhood, according to Scheindlin, especially among historically marginalized segments of Israeli society, such as religiously observant and mizrachi Jews of Middle Eastern origin.

“It’s a personality cult but not quite a cult,” Scheindlin added. “Netanyahu has a spell on people, and he plays fast and loose with the truth. Bennett accused Netanyahu of spreading “fake news and lies” and sending his “entire machine” and “army” of online trolls and media spokespersons to attack him.

The prime minister also alleged that Netanyahu’s proxies exerted “inhumane” pressure on defected party member Idit Silman and his family – including bullying his children at school – causing him to had finally led her to “give in”. This week, a live ammunition was sent to Bennett’s wife’s workplace, threatening her and their children, as well as their teenage son directly. Police and the Homeland Security Agency have opened an investigation.

Despite losing the ruling coalition’s parliamentary majority, even Likud officials admit that Netanyahu has no alternative government on hand. The best we can hope for, according to former Likud minister Tzachi Hanegbi, is for several more defectors to materialize and parliament to dissolve, triggering a snap election. “The coalition’s ‘just not Bibi’ position is unlikely to change,” Hanegbi said.

Likud has rejected the possibility of replacing Netanyahu, which could in theory pave the way for his return to power by persuading other parties to join him in a coalition. Yuli Edelstein, a former parliament speaker, said he would challenge Netanyahu in any future Likud leadership race. But most polls have him losing to Netanyahu in a rout.

“It’s not in Likud’s DNA to replace its leaders, who all retired by choice, and anyway we won’t be taking directives about who leads us,” Hanegbi added. “Netanyahu has huge popular support, he wants to stay, he has energy and he hasn’t left [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 in any upcoming election remains “extremely high.” “There is a strong link [that these voters] for him, the feeling that Likud is their home and Netanyahu is their leader,” Smith said.

Yet Smith, like other pollsters, saw nothing fundamentally change if Netanyahu succeeded in forcing another election. In the April 2021 poll, Netanyahu and his “bloc” of allied far-right and ultra-Orthodox parties fell short by around 70,000 votes to win an absolute parliamentary majority, out of more than 4 million voters.

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

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