JERUSALEM — News of Israel’s government collapse was barely an hour ago, but Benjamin Netanyahu, the opposition leader and former prime minister, had already declared he was returning to power.
“My friends and I will form a national government,” Netanyahu said in a video hastily posted online Monday evening, even before Prime Minister Naftali Bennett had delivered a formal resignation speech.
“A government that will take care of you, all citizens of Israel, without exception,” Netanyahu added.
His request was premature. A new election – Israel’s fifth in less than four years – will not take place until the fall and could conclude without any bloc winning a majority. Parliament has not yet been dissolved and probably won’t be until next Monday.
And as a farewell before an election campaign, lawmakers could pass a law barring the defendants from becoming prime minister. This could affect Mr. Netanyahu, who is in the midst of a year-long corruption trial.
Nonetheless, the possibility of Mr Netanyahu returning to power is now stronger than at any time since he left it last June.
Israel’s longest-serving prime minister, Mr. Netanyahu now has the chance to add to his last 15 years in power, a tenure in which he has shaped contemporary Israeli discourse and priorities more than any other figure. During his previous terms, he pushed Israeli society to the right, encouraged popular mistrust of the judiciary and the media, and accelerated Israel’s acceptance in the Middle East while overseeing the collapse of Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations.
Like Donald J. Trump’s supporters, Mr. Netanyahu’s base did not abandon him even after he lost power.
In a new election, polls suggest Mr Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud party would easily win more seats than any other. His broader alliance of right-wing and religious parties, although short of an overall majority, would still be the most important in parliament. And some right-wing lawmakers who refused to bring him back to power last year may change their minds in the fall, giving him control of parliament.
For its supporters, it would herald the return of strong right-wing governance in Israel, after a turbulent year in which the country was ruled by a fragile coalition of eight ideologically incompatible parties – including Jewish and Arab lawmakers – who Were united only in their opposition to Mr. Netanyahu himself.
For his detractors, however, the prospect of his return worries. A new Netanyahu government would most likely hinge on support from a far-right party that could demand control of the ministry overseeing the police force in return for loyalty.
Mr. Netanyahu’s own party has spent the past year undermining the concept of Jewish-Arab partnership, hinting at sweeping changes to the justice system, and even at times promising revenge against political opponents.
Mr Netanyahu himself has denied he would use a return to government to disrupt his prosecution, hinting he would be happy to stand trial – a process that is expected to take several more years – while running the country.
But a Likud lawmaker and Netanyahu loyalist, Shlomo Karhi, said earlier this year that he would work to replace the attorney general, the senior government official who oversees the prosecution of Mr Netanyahu. And another Likud MK and former minister, David Amsalem, said earlier this month that “anyone who does not intend to change, above all, our sick and biased justice system, has nothing to look for. in the Likud”.
“Once we break the bones of the left wing, we will explain to them that we know how to run this country a little better,” Amsalem said in a radio interview this month.
For Ben Caspit, a biographer of Mr Netanyahu, this kind of rhetoric raises concerns about the prospect of a new government led by Netanyahu. “Israeli democracy would be really, really in danger,” said Mr. Caspit, a political commentator.
“The only thing that interests him is the end of his trial,” he said.
Some Netanyahu allies view the speech as alarmist.
“False predictions,” said Tzachi Hanegbi, a Likud veteran and former minister. “They can’t blame Netanyahu on security or the economy,” Hanegbi said. “So what can they talk about? »
For some leftists and many Palestinians, a new Netanyahu government would not be much worse than the current one.
Prime Minister Bennett has a unifying manner and has formed a government alliance with an independent Arab party for the first time in Israel’s history. But on many fundamental issues, he agrees with Mr. Netanyahu. A former settlement leader, Bennett opposes a Palestinian state, has maintained a blockade on the Gaza Strip and has endorsed the construction of thousands of new settlement units in the occupied West Bank.
Ultimately, Mr. Bennett said, he decided to bring down his own government to prevent the collapse of a two-tier legal system in the West Bank that distinguishes between Israeli settlers and Palestinians. Some liken it to apartheid.
Ghassan Khatib, a Palestinian political analyst and former Palestinian minister, said: “The current government might be different in some views and positions, but in practice it was not different at all.
“They had the same political attitude: no to a Palestinian state, no to negotiations,” he said. “And they continued to expand the colony as fast as they could.”
Understanding the collapse of the Israeli government
Current and previous governments also had similar approaches to the wider Middle East. Both sought to establish new diplomatic ties with Arab countries that had long isolated Israel, and both opposed US-led efforts to ease sanctions on Iran if Iranian officials agreed to temper their nuclear enrichment program.
But for many Israelis, there is a stark difference between a right-wing government led by Mr Netanyahu and the current diverse coalition led by Mr Bennett and his centrist partner, Yair Lapid, who is set to become prime minister by interim during the election campaign.
Although they come from opposite political camps, Mr. Bennett and Mr. Lapid have built a partnership based on compromise and civility, which supporters have seen as a stark contrast to Likud’s bullish divide.
During their speeches on Monday announcing the fall of the government, the two men showed respect, affection and admiration for each other even as they ended their joint project. “I really love you,” Mr. Lapid told Mr. Bennett during an unscripted moment.
In concrete terms, their government has also got Israel moving again after a period of paralysis under Mr. Netanyahu, who did not have enough of a parliamentary majority in his last two years in office to perform some basic government functions.
Bennett’s administration passed Israel’s first national budget in more than three years; attempted to reduce food costs by removing tariffs on food imports; began to liberalize kosher food regulations; and filled several key vacancies in the upper echelons of the civil service that had been left vacant under Mr. Netanyahu.
The Bennett government presided over one of the quietest periods in Gaza for several years, encouraging militants to limit their rocket attacks on southern Israel by offering thousands of new work permits to Gaza residents.
The government has also improved relations with the Biden administration, while opposing some of the administration’s goals, such as the Iranian nuclear deal or the reopening of a US consulate in Jerusalem to Palestinians.
Mr Netanyahu is no shoo-in for the next prime minister, any more than he was in four elections from 2019 to 2021. Each time he was unable to form a majority coalition with other parties, or has not honored its commitments to them. when he did.
This new election might be no different, said Professor Gideon Rahat, a political scientist at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
“We’ve been in this movie four times and we can get similar results a fifth time,” Prof Rahat said.
Right-wing parties that previously balked at serving in a Netanyahu government could go with him this time, but experience has shown that such partnerships do not end well, he added.
“Netanyahu has a credibility problem,” Professor Rahat said. “He can make 1,000 promises, but no one believes him. Netanyahu isn’t bad at electoral politics, but when it comes to building a coalition, he doesn’t get the credit. »
The report was provided by Myra Noveck of Jerusalem and Gabby Sobelman from Rehovot, Israel.