The Benjamin Netanyahu era seemed to meet its definitive end last summer.
But Israel’s hawkish ex-prime minister — and longtime thorn in the side of President Biden, Barack Obama and other Democrats who favor diplomacy with Iran’s anti-Israel theocratic regime — has a real chance to return to power after a stunning shakeup in Israeli politics this week that has left the country barreling toward its fifth election in just three years.
The rapid collapse of Israel’s anti-Netanyahu coalition government on Monday didn’t happen by accident, regional analysts say. The 72-year-old Mr. Netanyahu, who led Israel from 1996 to 1999 and again from 2009 to June 2021, worked feverishly behind the scenes to whip up opposition to Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and undermine an eight-party governing alliance that was united almost solely by its desire to push Mr. Netanyahu out of power.
It’s the latest example of what observers say is Mr. Netanyahu’s unmatched political skill and unparalleled understanding of his nation’s mood, traits that have carried him through electoral setbacks and personal scandals over the decades that would have sunk less determined rivals long ago.
“He just tanked the current government. His strategy was to peel away members of the coalition and to erode it seat by seat. He’s done that,” said Jonathan Schanzer, senior vice president for research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a leading Washington think tank.
“No one knows Israeli politics better. They say some people play checkers and some people play chess. He plays 3-D chess in dealing with the Israeli political system,” Mr. Schanzer said.
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Mr. Bennett, a onetime aide to Mr. Netanyahu, announced Monday that he’ll dissolve parliament after several key lawmakers withdrew their support for the government. New elections are tentatively set for October. Foreign Minister Yair Lapid, a key ally of Mr. Bennett, will serve as caretaker prime minister until those elections.
Resetting the agenda
The timing of Israel’s latest leadership struggle — the past four elections have yet to deliver a workable majority for any of the major factions — creates some awkward and unsettling moments in the days ahead.
As the country’s interim leader, Mr. Lapid is expected to meet with Mr. Biden next month when the American president makes a long-awaited visit to Israel. That meeting comes at a crucial moment in U.S.-Israeli relations, with the Biden administration forging ahead in talks with Iran to strike a new deal limiting Tehran’s nuclear program in exchange for economic sanctions relief.
Mr. Bennett has been a vocal critic of those negotiations, but his opposition — at least from a public-relations perspective — pales in comparison to that of Mr. Netanyahu, who bashed then-President Obama’s 2015 nuclear pact with Iran at every turn, warning it would endanger both Israel and the broader Middle East.
His most famous broadside came during an unprecedented 2015 speech to the U.S. Congress attacking American policy, delivered at the invitation of Republicans who controlled the House at the time.
President Donald Trump in 2018 pulled the U.S. out of its nuclear pact with Iran and reinstituted a harsh set of sanctions. Mr. Biden’s State Department, led by Secretary of State Antony Blinken and special Iran envoy Robert Malley, are now trying to revive that deal, though negotiations have stalled in recent months.
Another Netanyahu term would add fresh public pressure to the Biden administration and its diplomatic outreach to Iran, though analysts stress that opposition to a new nuclear deal would remain the dominant political position in Israel no matter who takes over as the next prime minister.
The leadership shakeup also could complicate other Biden administration policy priorities. The White House has been trying to facilitate a normalization of relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia in what would be a monumental change for Middle East politics and represent an end to decades of hostility between the two nations.
Such a deal would build on the Trump-era Abraham Accords, which ended the Jewish state’s historic isolation in the Arab world by normalizing relations with the United Arab Emirates. Israel in 2020 also normalized relations with Bahrain and Morocco.
Thawing relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia was expected to be at the top of the agenda when Mr. Biden visits Israel next month, but it’s unclear whether that may change given the new political reality.
“There appeared to be some movement on the Saudi-Israeli normalization front. It’s unclear whether the Biden administration will want to make any big moves, and it’s also unclear whether the Saudis will be willing to make any big moves given that there is upheaval” in Israel, Mr. Schanzer said.
For Mr. Netanyahu, there remains a great deal of work to be done before he can secure another term as prime minister. Political observers note that there’s no sign the ex-prime minister can overcome the kind of gridlock that doomed his government last spring and summer.
He’s also on trial for corruption, though he denies any wrongdoing. Some Israeli lawmakers have reportedly discussed passing new laws that would prohibit a politician under indictment from serving as prime minister, which would legally end his prospects.
Even some members of former Netanyahu-led governments, such as Defense Minister Benny Gantz, say they’ll oppose his run.
“Honestly, in pain and sorrow, I say he has exhausted the political trust that can be given to him,” Mr. Gantz said Monday.
For liberal Israelis, the prospect of Mr. Netanyahu returning to power sparks something akin to the feeling U.S. Democrats express at the idea of Mr. Trump — who had close relations with Mr. Netanyahu — winning back the White House in 2024.
“The upcoming elections will be the final and decisive battle for the state of Israel,” wrote columnist Ben Caspit for the Israeli newspaper Maariv Tuesday. “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.”
But Mr. Netanyahu is banking on the fact that Israeli voters, having lived through a year of the shaky Naftali coalition, will again conclude his more direct style is best suited to lead the country.
In a blistering statement Monday, Mr. Netanyahu took direct aim at that coalition government, which spanned the ideological spectrum and included Israeli Arabs and conservative Israeli factions strongly supportive of the settler movement in lands claimed by the Palestinians.
The coalition lasted a year, longer than many expected, and managed to pass a politically difficult budget, but its one-vote majority in the Knesset left it continually vulnerable to defections.
“After a year’s determined struggle by the opposition in the Knesset and great suffering by the public in Israel, it is clear to everyone that the worst government in Israeli history has come to an end,” Mr. Netanyahu said in a statement, according to the Times of Israel.
“A government that was dependent on supporters of terrorism, that abandoned the personal security of Israeli citizens, that raised the cost of living to unprecedented heights, that imposed unnecessary taxes, that endangered the Jewish character of our state, this government is going home,” he said.
The coalition government, with its strange bedfellows and host of competing political priorities and positions, had shown signs of stress for months.
“If they had kept the government together, it was going to look like death by a thousand cuts,” Mr. Schanzer said.
The final blow came when Mr. Bennett couldn’t secure enough votes to extend certain legal rights to Jewish settlers in the West Bank, such as their right to receive Israeli health insurance. Mr. Netanyahu’s supporters, even though they backed the policy, voted against the measure as a way to embarrass the government.
With the government dissolved, those rights will automatically roll over until after a new government is formed.
“Israel will endure heavy security damage and constitutional chaos” without extending those rights, Mr. Bennett said Monday, explaining his decision to step down and pave the way for new elections.
“That I could not allow,” he said.
— This article is based in part on wire-service reports.
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