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Tuesday, 16 August 2022
Will Bibi return to power?
Ian Black

In another turbulent week across the Middle East it was hard to compete with the implications of the news that Israeli prime minister Naftali Bennett’s unwieldy coalition has collapsed, and there is going to be fresh general election in October or November – the fifth in less than four years.


 Chief amongst them is that Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu is likely to return to power. It is not guaranteed of course, but is still a possible outcome. “Everyone is smiling,” as Bibi told reporters. Bennett’s office said last Monday that “attempts to stabilise the coalition had been exhausted” and his fractious government, made up of ideologically disparate parties, will submit a bill this week to dissolve parliament.

 Netanyahu’s return is by no means inevitable but if his political career has shown anything over the years, it’s that it’s best not to underestimate him. “There is no politician in the country with greater political skills, charisma, and experience than Netanyahu”, wrote Aaron David Miller, a former US state department official. In 1996, Bibi became Israel’s youngest prime minister and is now the longest-governing prime minister in the country’s history. And there are many Israelis who can’t imagine political life without him.

 If approved, as is expected, the legislation will force new elections and mean the centrist foreign minister, Yair Lapid, takes over as caretaker leader in line with an existing coalition agreement. In comments at a joint media conference after the unexpected announcement, Bennett said: “Over the past weeks, we did whatever we could to save this government, not for us, but for the benefit of the country.”

  Lapid praised Bennett as a friend and for the “responsibility he is showing today, for the fact that he is putting the country before his personal interests”. As Amos Harel, a Haaretz columnist, commented: “If the outgoing prime minister possessed limited diplomatic experience and came from a small party, and led a narrow, conflicted coalition, he will now be succeeded by an equally untried prime minister whose powers will be clipped by dint of the fact that he will be leading a transition government.”

  On a positive note, in contrast to Bennett, it looks as though Lapid will not have a problem of principle in holding a tête-à-tête meeting with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, though what that is likely to achieve is very uncertain.

 Eight factions from Israel’s left, right, and for the first time, an independent Arab party, banded together a year ago as part of an ambitious coalition experiment in order to oust Netanyahu from power. The government has struggled to function, however, since losing its slim majority in April.

 Netanyahu said that the coalition’s imminent collapse was “great news for millions of Israeli citizens” and that his center-right Likud party would seek to form a “wide, national government”. Israel held four inconclusive elections between 2019 and 2021 that were largely referendums about the scandalous Netanyahu’s ability to rule while on trial, in an unprecedented era of political gridlock. On the negative side, the Likud may now only be able to work with other parties if it promises to remove Bibi as leader.

 The former prime minister denies any wrongdoing. Three separate trials, into allegations that he sought preferential treatment for a telecom company, solicited favourable media coverage and received gifts worth hundreds of thousands of dollars, are ongoing.

 Bennett’s government can claim some successes during its short tenure: it formed the most diverse coalition in Israeli history; passed overdue budgets; guided Israel through the latter stages of the covid pandemic without ordering new lockdowns; and made amends with a judiciary much maligned by Netanyahu. It has also largely dampened the tensions that last May led to a round of fighting between Israel and Hamas, the Palestinian group in control of the Gaza Strip, as well as ethnically charged violence on the streets of Israeli cities.

 Nevertheless, Netanyahu remains the country’s most capable and experienced politician. He has dominated public life for much of the past quarter-century, not only as the country’s longest-serving prime minister but also as a formidable opposition leader.

 The dissolution may derail a visit to Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories by US President Joe Biden, scheduled for mid-July. Israeli media quoted the US ambassador to Israel, Tom Nides, as saying that the president’s trip would take place as planned. Lapid is expected to host Biden during the state visit.

 Biden is no fan of Netanyahu, whom he’s known for years. Indeed, as vice-president visiting Jerusalem in 2010, Biden was stunned when the Netanyahu government announced a significant expansion of housing in occupied East Jerusalem. And one look at the US administration’s approach to the Bennett-Lapid government in the past year and a half reflects a consistent willingness to avoid any steps that might bring that government down and allow Netanyahu back in—even when the Israeli government’s policies on settlements and Palestinian statehood run counter to Washington’s approach.

 With the long-stalled Iranian nuclear talks about to resume, Lapid will have to proceed cautiously, knowing that across the Middle East, every step taken by the Israeli leadership is being closely watched.