CAIRO – A potentially devastating departure from Israel’s fragile governing coalition this week has thrown a political lifeline for Benjamin Netanyahu, the country’s longest-serving prime minister, who lost office last June when the current government was formed.
Thursday’s resignation of a lawmaker, the second in a month, gave the opposition a narrow majority of two seats, technically enough to dissolve parliament in a vote it could carry out next week. That would lead to Israel’s fifth election in three years, giving Mr Netanyahu, currently the opposition leader, the chance to win enough seats to send him back as prime minister at the head of an alliance that analysts say is among the far right. would belong. in Israeli history.
His recovery would put an end to an ambitious political experiment that brought together an unusually diverse coalition of eight ideologically incompatible political parties that, until recently at least, often compromised to prolong the life of their government.
Under Mr Netanyahu, that diversity would likely be replaced by a much more homogeneous alliance, with far-right and ultra-Orthodox lawmakers returning to a cabinet in which Mr Netanyahu, who has pledged to oppose full Palestinian sovereignty, is one of its most moderate members.
This outcome is still uncertain: Ghaida Rinawie Zoabi, the left-wing lawmaker who left the coalition on Thursday, may oppose the vote for new elections even if she remains out of government. And if Israel were to hold elections again, polls suggest any outcome is possible. Just as four previous elections from 2019 to 2021 have ended with no clear winner, another vote could once again end in another parliamentary deadlock. The opposition could also form a government without Netanyahu at the helm.
Mr Netanyahu is nonetheless still closer to returning to power than at any time since he lost this past summer.
In January, he considered accepting a plea deal in his long-running corruption case, which may have forced him to leave the front line for several years. But recent events have improved his outlook: In this week’s courtroom, his prosecutors were embarrassed by inconsistencies in the testimony of a key state witness, prompting the prosecutor to change the wording of the indictment against Netanyahu.
In Parliament, Mr Netanyahu is now just days away from being able to call a vote that could collapse the government, then put him in a prime position to succeed it.
“Netanyahu is permanently poised to make a comeback,” said Anshel Pfeffer, the author of “Bibi,” a biography of Netanyahu. “Israel has not changed, it is still divided in the middle between its supporters and opponents, so another election is just another die to see if he can finally get his elusive majority.”
If he were to win, it would mark a remarkable comeback for a politician who has defined 21st-century Israel more than any other. During his last 12-year term in office, Netanyahu oversaw the shift of Israeli society to the right and led the collapse of the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, while forging diplomatic relaxation with parts of the Arab world. Critics said he undermined the rule of law by remaining in government while being prosecuted for corruption, a decision that divided Israeli law.
Over the past year, Netanyahu and his right-wing party, Likud, have pushed Israel to the brink of new elections through a strategy reminiscent of the Republican Party’s strategy in the United States, analysts say.
He has relentlessly attacked the government’s legitimacy by accusing it of defrauding the electorate. And he has undermined the functioning of the government by refusing to work with it on new legislation, even on matters of shared interest.
Netanyahu has not said that Naftali Bennett, his successor as prime minister, stole last March’s elections. But he has repeatedly argued that Mr Bennett misled the Israeli public by acting as a right-winger and then forming a coalition with the left. Amid a spate of Arab attacks on Israeli civilians, he has rejected calls for national unity by regularly criticizing Mr Bennett, accusing the latter of making Israel more vulnerable to violence by allying with Arab lawmakers.
To undermine the government, Likud has voted against the right-wing policies it had previously long supported. In its most prominent example, last July, the party rejected attempts by Mr Bennett’s government to extend a ban on Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza from gaining Israeli citizenship or residency by marrying Arab Israelis – a provision she had previously supported. Currently, Likud is blocking a government bill that would subsidize tuition for military veterans, although several party lawmakers support the concept.
“There is a Trump analogy,” said Mitchell Barak, a political analyst, pollster and former Netanyahu aide. “There is no such thing as bipartisan for Netanyahu when he is trying to topple this government,” he added.
However, Mr Netanyahu’s main line of attack was specific to Israel. He and Likud have targeted the coalition’s right-wing members, painting them as scammers before joining the government, the first to include an independent Arab party – Raam. After months of such criticism, a right-wing coalition lawmaker, Idit Silman, defected in April, saying the government had endangered Israel’s Jewish character.
In turn, Likud’s critics have accused the party of incitement and hypocrisy.
Netanyahu won the Arab vote ahead of last year’s election and Raam’s leader Mansour Abbas said Netanyahu lobbied privately to persuade the Arab party to support a Netanyahu-led coalition.
Against the backdrop of Netanyahu’s harsh rhetoric, groups of protesters regularly fall outside their homes and even at memorial services. A supporter of Mr Netanyahu was arrested in May for sending two bullets to members of Mr Bennett’s family.
A senior Likud lawmaker, Miki Zohar, said the party opposed violence, had not incited its supporters and that Netanyahu himself had been the victim of incitement while in office. He also said that Likud Raam had only asked to support a vote of no confidence in Netanyahu as prime minister, but had never offered the party a seat in a coalition government.
“Our strategy was very simple,” said Mr. zohar. “We are trying to do everything we can to convince people from this coalition to withdraw.” He added: “We want to go to the people and ask for their support to give us the majority for Jewish rule here in Israel.”
Likud’s efforts received a slight boost this week, when the prosecutor in Netanyahu’s long-running corruption trial asked for his indictment to be updated after a key witness admitted during cross-examination there were inconsistencies in the testimony he gave to police.
Netanyahu has been on trial since 2020, charged with offering favorable business terms to major media owners in exchange for positive media coverage, and accepting gifts in exchange for political favors. The allegations, which Mr. Netanyahu denies, are at the heart of why fellow right-wing parties such as Mr Bennett broke up with him and formed a government with their political opponents.
Should those allegations lose credibility during the court proceedings, it could make it easier for Mr. Netanyahu to convince some of his former allies to return to the fold.
But the process is likely to drag on for years, meaning it will have little impact on Parliament’s decision to vote on the dissolution next week. In an interview, Ms Rinawie Zoabi said she had not yet decided whether to vote in new elections, while Mr Zohar said Likud was still unsure whether it would push for a vote it might not win.
Even if a vote is taken and Netanyahu returns as prime minister afterward, some commentators believe his comeback could be short-lived.
“In the long run, Netanyahu will find that the path he chose to walk will lead him to a dead end,” Ari Shavit, an Israeli journalist, wrote in a commentary for Makor Rishon, a right-wing newspaper. “His uncompromising nationalism will be seen by many center-right voters as boundless selfishness. His fanatical nationalism will scare and scare hundreds of thousands.”
He added: “If it turns out that Bibi can no longer control the fire he started, he himself will be burned.”
Hiba Yazbek reporting contributed.