JERUSALEM — With weary familiarity, Israelis are preparing for their fifth election in less than four years. But at least one man is jubilant at the prospect of a new vote and a possible new chapter in a remarkable political life.
Charismatic and divisive former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was ousted last year by a fragile coalition of rivals from across the right, center and left who came together in an effort to break his more than a decadelong hold on power.
Now that government has collapsed, opening the door for Netanyahu to sweep back into power on a nationalistic right-wing slate.
Even before the Knesset took its first preliminary vote Wednesday to disperse, Netanyahu, also known as “Bibi,” couldn’t stop beaming.
“The winds have changed,” a jubilant Netanyahu, who heads Israel’s opposition and its largest right-wing party, the Likud, told reporters Monday night, after Prime Minister Naftali Bennett announced that he was disbanding his government.
“We’re prepared for elections, and we are very certain of our ability to win them,” added that the skilled orator who has dominated politics for a quarter of a century and sat in the prime minister’s office for a total of 15 years. Behind the scenes, however, he is working on a legislative shortcut that would allow him to form a new government without elections.
Either way, Israel’s most famous living politician who has had a back seat role for the last year, is now back in the limelight.
Supporters of Netanyahu, 72, often portray him as the only Israeli politician capable of leading the country, and he capitalizes on that image of being the nation’s savior, often choosing polarizing stances and portraying his rivals as enemies.
He is admired by many for campaigning against Iran’s nuclear program, putting in place a cutting-edge Covid-19 vaccine program, supporting Jewish settlements on occupied Palestinian territory, helping ease Israel’s isolation in the Arab world by working to normalize ties with Gulf Arab kingdoms and for his close friendship with former President Donald Trump.
His critics accuse him of eroding the country’s democratic foundations by seeking to weaken judicial independence, strengthening right-wing extremism and giving a boost to the state’s Jewish identity at the expense of its Arab citizens.
“Either you like Bibi, or you do not like Bibi,” said Hebrew University political scientist professor Gideon Rahat.
A long-running corruption case will hang over Netanyahu during any upcoming elections as it has during the past four votes.
The dividing issues among the electorate have been and will be more about personality than ideology, said Rahat, who said that the majority of the Israeli voters chose right-wing parties in the last election and are likely to do so again in the upcoming one.
“It’s all about Netanyahu reshuffling the cards again and again until he will win,” he added.
Netanyahu can effectively hold Israeli politics hostage: He has enough support in the right to prevent his rivals from creating an alternative right-wing coalition while those in the centrist and left-wing parties also lack enough popularity to form a government, Rahat said.
Polls done in the last few days show that the right has grown even stronger and much of that growth was among those who would support Netanyahu, while right-wing parties that did not want to sit in a government with him had lost support.
“The center moved to the right, the right went further to the right and the far-right went to the extreme-right,” said political strategist Aviv Bushinsky, Netanyahu’s former chief of staff and adviser.
Netanyahu himself, despite his optimistic comments, has hedged his bets and is in the midst of intense efforts to make use of a legislative option that allows him to form a new coalition that places him at the government’s helm.
“For some right-wingers” a Netanyahu-led nationalistic government “is a dream about to come true,” Bushinsky said. “They see the light at the end of the tunnel, in which they will have a majority ... ultra-religious, right wing coalition and they do not need to compromise with any other party, not from the left, not anti-religious, not even a center party.”
The worry of many centrists and those on the country’s left is that should Netanyahu form an all-right nationalistic coalition, it would pass legislation harmful to Israeli democracy.
“They might try to limit the power of the courts and the power of other bodies and to place centralized power in the hands of the prime minister,” Rahat said.
Netanyahu’s most immediate rival is Foreign Minister Yair Lapid, of the centrist Yesh Atid party, whose support has also grown, and who in the last election and in the last polls was shown to be the second most popular leader. He is due to become interim prime minister.
“It is really a do-or-die campaign for both candidates, Yair Lapid as the new leader of the center and Netanyahu as the right-wing leader of 26 years,” Bushinsky said.