Anshel Pfeffer

Is a return to power in Netanyahu’s grasp?

Is a return to power in Netanyahu’s grasp?
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‘Netanyahu’s coming back soon, and he’ll be back with a vengeance!’ Simcha Rothman’s eyes flashed as he made his bold prediction. The normally mild-mannered lawyer, an ultra-nationalist Knesset member, was convinced. ‘He’s coming back and it’s all the left-wing’s fault for demonising him. If it wasn’t for them, the right-wing would have found a different leader by now. But the left made him into an icon and much more dangerous.’

Will Rothman be vindicated soon? It’s been a year since Benjamin ‘Bibi’ Netanyahu, Israel’s longest-serving prime minister, was forced into opposition by an eclectic coalition of parties united only by their determination to keep him out office.

At 72, and 35 years after entering politics (15 of which he served as prime minister), his desire for power is unabated. ‘Bibi likes to tell people he could easily go and make billions in the private sector, but the truth is that he has no life outside politics,’ says a member of his inner circle. ‘The last year for him has been a nightmare, without constantly being surrounded by the prime minister’s staff and getting updates and intelligence briefings. He often seems lost for something to do. He will do everything to come back.’

The anti-Bibi coalition – which came together in June last year to appoint a new government under Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, after four consecutive stalemated elections – is fraying. It had the slimmest of margins to begin with, and following a defection of one of its members in April (the coalition whip no less) has lost its majority in the Knesset. This was to be expected. The coalition consists of eight different right-wing, centrist, left-wing and Islamist parties, and when it was formed, few gave it more than a few months’ life expectancy.

In his farewell speech on the day the new government was sworn in, Netanyahu promised ‘we’ll be back soon’, and that belief is still strong among many of his supporters. They don’t even call themselves the opposition but instead the ‘Netanyahu camp’, which consists of four right-wing and religious parties (this is also to separate them from the fifth opposition party, the Arab-Israeli Joint List, which would never join a Netanyahu coalition).

But despite their outward confidence, not all the members of the Knesset (MKs) for Netanyahu’s Likud party are convinced. ‘It’s no coincidence he’s failed four times to form a coalition,’ says one. ‘He’s become too toxic for many, even on the right, and Likud may be stuck in opposition as long Bibi remains leader.’ Three of the coalition parties’ leaders, including Bennett, are former Likud members and served as senior aides to Netanyahu before falling out with him.

‘This government has held together for nearly a year now thanks to the fear of Bibi coming back,’ admits a government minister. ‘That may not be enough any more.’

Indeed, it’s a wonder that it’s survived this long. Just a weekly list of crises includes a right-wing MK threatening to defect if an illegal West Bank settlement is evicted, as his left-wing colleagues demand; Muslim coalition members on the brink of resigning because of heavy-handed policing in Jerusalem’s Al-Aqsa Mosque; and a centrist member, chair of the Knesset’s economics committee, refusing to vote on any government legislation until Labour’s transport minister changes her proposed public transport reform. At any moment, another coalition MK may rebel on any policy issue or proposed law, and Bennett and his colleagues, the other seven party leaders, have little power over their recalcitrant minions.

‘We’re being told to broadcast optimism,’ admits one coalition MK. ‘But there’s a sinking feeling.’ Bennett himself has told his aides that for now he hopes to finish the summer session at the end of July. Anything more would be a bonus. In just one month, four of his closest advisers have resigned – not over any scandal, but because they’ve lost the will to continuously be putting out fires and babysitting mutinous MKs.

The coalition’s fragility and a series of setbacks for the prosecution in Netanyahu’s ongoing corruption case, where one of the star witnesses has proven less than stellar on the stand, have fuelled the enthusiasm of his supporters. But Netanyahu’s path back to office is not as clear as they want to believe.

In the 120-seat Knesset, he currently has the potential support of 54 members, seven short of the majority he needs to form a new government. In the past year, he has succeeded in peeling away two defectors. Seven more still seems an impossible task. The right-wing has a clear majority in the Knesset but too many MKs have burned their bridges to Netanyahu.

The likelier option would be to try to dissolve the Knesset and hold new elections – Israel’s fifth in four years. On paper, with the coalition and opposition evenly tied at 60 members each, all Netanyahu needs is one more vote and Israel is off to the polls. But not all opposition members, worried for their own seats, are up for it. The Likud whips are not convinced they can corral the necessary 61 MKs when a dissolution vote is held.

And even if they were to get them, can Netanyahu’s Likud and the other parties who remain loyal be certain of finally winning the elusive majority? ‘Remarkably, general polling trends have not changed in any meaningful way,’ says Dahlia Scheindlin, a pollster and political strategist. ‘Within the blocs there are slight shifts for individual parties, but they don’t affect the overall prospects for Netanyahu to reach a majority.’

Netanyahu is an inveterate consumer of polls and can’t believe that the public has not come back to him in droves after a year of what he sees as a woefully incompetent government. He blames his own Likud MKs and three weeks ago berated them for not keeping to the message. ‘When I brief you, I feel you’ve put me on mute,’ he complained in a meeting with his parliamentary faction. But the lack of certainty over the next election’s outcome isn’t stopping him. He wants another throw of the dice as soon as possible.

His adorers call him a winner, but Netanyahu’s political accomplishment is in many ways more impressive. He has led Likud in ten general elections. He has in fact only won four of those, but his ability to return from defeats and stalemates and maintain his complete control of Likud, where no one at present has any realistic chance of challenging his leadership, is what sets him aside from mere mortal politicians. While Netanyahu is still breathing, he will constantly be coming back.