Barring some eleventh-hour reprieve, Israelis will go to the polls for the fifth time in three years in the fall, after the coalition government folded on Monday. And at the center of this seemingly endless political Groundhog Day stands one former prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, whose ambitions for power and machinations to overturn his corruption indictment are largely responsible for Israel’s repeated electoral chaos. Netanyahu’s return is by no means inevitable—it’s still early—but if his political career has shown anything over the years, it’s that it’s best not to underestimate him.
But why would a politician who failed repeatedly in the past three years to form a government; who’s on trial for bribery, fraud, and breach of trust; and who’s reviled by many of his former Cabinet colleagues still be a relevant and popular force in Israeli politics?
First and foremost, Netanyahu wants the job more than any other Israeli politician and is prepared to say and do just about anything to attain it. It’s not just political—it’s a deeply personal matter of security. Being prime minister is the only way he can manipulate the system to get his indictment overturned through some legislative chicanery. Toward this end, there are few promises he’s not prepared to break; relationships he’s not ready to betray; and lines of propriety, ethics, and the law he’s not willing to cross to achieve his aims. Having engaged in race-baiting against Israeli Arab citizens during several of his campaigns, he was perfectly willing last year to court the United Arab List political party’s leader if it meant he could form a government. Now, he is running against that same Arab party while claiming that, unlike outgoing Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, he would never sit in government with terrorists. Nor would it be a surprise if Netanyahu reaches out again to Israeli Arabs to form a coalition.
Second, there is no politician in the country with greater political skills, charisma, and experience than Netanyahu. In 1996, he 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. He has been an extraordinarily polarizing and harmful force to Israel’s norms and institutions and has set back an already hopeless Palestinian peace process. But as Haaretz senior political analyst Anshel Pfeffer notes, Netanyahu “concluded four diplomatic agreements with Arab states, Israel has got better relations with the world and, prior to Covid, there was a decade of uninterrupted economic growth.” Indeed, Netanyahu may no longer be king of Israel, but for many, he remains king in exile.
Third, Netanyahu heads Likud, the largest and most cohesive party in the country. Polling estimates say that if elections were held today, Likud would receive thirty-six seats, as opposed to twenty seats for the party of Yair Lapid, the interim prime minister. More than that, Netanyahu has natural coalition partners who are ideologically aligned with him and, unlike the Bennett-Lapid government, are more reliable and unlikely to fracture. In addition, his trial shouldn’t prove to be much of an obstacle, save for any surprises, and it could take years to reach a verdict. Former prime minister Ehud Olmert was indicted in 2009 and was not convicted until 2015. Netanyahu isn’t barred from running again by Israeli law, nor is there any serious challenge from within his party to overthrow him.
Finally, Netanyahu is operating in an Israel that’s been heading rightward for some time now. The Bennett-Lapid government demonstrated, at least for a year, that Israeli politics could come off the Netanyahu roller coaster, pass a budget, and manage competently with a broad-based coalition. And the organizing principle of that coalition—blocking Netanyahu from returning to power—worked, at least for a while. Over time, however, it was worn down by its own right-left contradictions and efforts by Netanyahu and the right-wing opposition to pressure vulnerable right-wing members in the government.
So is a Netanyahu return inevitable? The long and short answer is no. Elections are scheduled for October 25—a good four months away. According to current polling, Netanyahu falls short of being able to put together a government—essentially the same situation he has faced in his last three attempts. And for the first time, he is mounting a campaign as a member of the opposition. Perhaps more to the point, Lapid proved in the 2021 elections that Netanyahu can be beaten.
Lapid will be a credible opponent. His stature has grown, partly because of his decision to allow Bennett to hold the office of prime minister last year before the rotation agreement’s late 2023 term. And Lapid’s Yesh Atid (There Is a Future) party has survived where most centrist parties don’t. Still, Lapid will face the same set of constraints as Bennett: how to put together and sustain a coalition composed of as many as seven or eight parties whose common objectives don’t go much beyond keeping Netanyahu away from the prime minister’s residence on Balfour Street. Lapid’s strongest card, according to Pffefer, is that he engineered a government that beat Netanyahu. Now he needs to demonstrate to enough of the Israeli public that he is made of prime ministerial stuff.
One key factor to watch in the next month is U.S. President Joe Biden’s visit to Israel. One of the great myths of the two countries’ relationship is that the United States doesn’t intercede in Israeli politics and Israel doesn’t intercede in the United States’—but at the State Department, I had a ringside seat under a half-dozen Republican and Democratic administrations and watched two that did. Biden’s administration has already made clear that the United States will deal with whichever government is in place, but there’s little doubt where Biden’s personal preferences lie.
Biden is no fan of Netanyahu, whom he’s known for years. Indeed, as vice president visiting Jerusalem in 2010, Biden was stunned and humiliated when the Netanyahu government announced a significant expansion of housing units in east Jerusalem. And one look at the 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, Palestinian statehood, and reopening the Jerusalem consulate run counter to the administration’s.
Biden will need to tread carefully on his visit to avoid any appearance of an overt intervention in the country’s domestic politics, which could hurt him in Israel and at home. He might even consider meeting with Netanyahu—meeting with the opposition is not unusual. But whatever fanfare is on display, Biden will be helping Lapid look as prime ministerial as possible. Israelis put a good deal of stock in their leaders’ capacity to maintain the relationship with Israel’s closet ally. If Biden’s visit to Saudi Arabia produces a few incremental steps toward normalizing Israel-Saudi relations, that will boost Lapid as well—as would an Israeli-Saudi meeting at a senior level. Biden won’t press the caretaker government on Palestinian issues or on Iran further than Lapid is willing to go. The new prime minister needs to protect his right flank while maintaining the support of his center and left partners, without giving Netanyahu additional ammunition. Sometime before the elections (but not too close), the White House might consider an invitation to Lapid to visit Washington.
Biden cannot elect Lapid as prime minister. And it’s unlikely, barring some unforeseen crisis, that U.S.-Israeli relations will be the central focus of Biden’s visit. The election will turn, as the three previous contests have, on whether enough of the Israeli public wants Netanyahu back. If it does, then Biden will have another headache on his plate. Netanyahu will toughen up Israeli policies across the board and likely play U.S. politics, especially if former U.S. president Donald Trump runs for the presidential nomination in 2024. The Republican Party has already set itself up as the go-to party on Israel, and Netanyahu already knows how to play that game. He may have help from an unexpected quarter, as Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is also looking for a friendlier face in the White House and, like Netanyahu, thinks he’d be better off with Trump than Biden.
But first things first: four long months to Israel’s election. And with Netanyahu formally back in the mix, Israel’s prime ministerial sweepstakes are about to get a whole lot more complicated.