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Netanyahu’s shadow looms over Israel’s new government

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For the past two years, Benjamin Netanyahu’s paramount concern has been to stay out of jail. It motivated his unceasing efforts to remain in power as Israel’s prime minister. It prompted him to call at least three of the past four Israeli elections — in April 2019, when an indictment for corruption loomed on the political horizon; in September of that year, when the impending indictment was virtually a certainty; and in March this year, as his trial was under way. In each election, Netanyahu had but one objective: to obtain a sufficient majority that would legislate his permanent immunity from prosecution.

For the past several years, while Donald Trump occupied the White House, Netanyahu could point to a string of foreign policy successes. Washington recognized Israel’s annexation of the Golan Heights, moved the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem, and engineered the Abraham Accords that led to peace agreements with four Arab countries. Netanyahu also forged new relationships with a host of other states. Moreover, he overcame initial criticism of his handling of the COVID-19 pandemic by quickly arranging for shipment of enough vaccines to cover most of the Israeli public

Netanyahu had restructured Israel’s economy during his stint as finance minister in the early 2000s and his first years as prime minister. Nevertheless, in the two years that he forced Israeli citizens to keep revisiting the polls, on fiscal matters Netanyahu was AWOL. The government operated without a state budget, thereby allowing for all sorts of financial shenanigans. The only assured funding was for defense; for West Bank expenditures to benefit Netanyahu’s settler allies; and for the ultra-Orthodox Haredim who constituted a critical element in the former prime minister’s electoral base. 

As the reality of possible jail time closed in, Netanyahu became more desperate to keep his office. He turned down the possibility of running for Israel’s presidency, even though he was assured he had enough votes in the Knesset to win. His associates reportedly even made a last-ditch approach to Benny Gantz, his one-time political ally, offering him the premiership for three years, as long as Netanyahu could then succeed him. By the time of Netanyahu’s return to office in the fourth year of that government, presumably he would have engineered the passage of a law enabling him to avoid conviction and imprisonment. Gantz — who, despite evidence to the contrary, previously fell for Netanyahu’s promise to turn over his post after two years — was wise enough to reject the prime minister’s latest blandishments. 

With Gantz’s rejection, the clock finally ran out on Netanyahu. As of Sunday, Naftali Bennett is now prime minister of Israel. But Netanyahu has not gone away. 

As leader of the opposition, Netanyahu has made it clear that he will do all he can, as quickly as he can, to bring down the shaky coalition that Bennett and Foreign Minister Yair Lapid have cobbled together. One way for him to do so is to encourage new illegal settlement construction. The Islamist Raam party that is part of the government coalition will certainly push for demolishing any of these outposts. The left-wing Meretz Party and Lapid’s Yesh Atid party will support Raam. The right-wing parties in the coalition, notably Gideon Sa’ar’s New Hope, as well as Bennett’s own Yamina supporters, can be expected to support the settlers. Bennett will be caught in the middle; the government could fall.

There is yet a darker possibility that could lead to Netanyahu’s return to office. His more radical supporters reportedly have issued death threats against Bennett and other leaders of the new government. The death of even one of them likely would topple the government. Netanyahu, however, has only flaccidly criticized the radicals. 

In some ways, it is a situation eerily reminiscent of the days that led up to the 1995 assassination of Yitzhak Rabin. Several months after Rabin was killed, Israel held an election and the leader of the opposition — Benjamin Netanyahu — became prime minister for the first time.

Dov S. Zakheim is a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and vice chairman of the board for the Foreign Policy Research Institute. He was under secretary of Defense (comptroller) and chief financial officer for the Department of Defense from 2001 to 2004 and a deputy under secretary of Defense from 1985 to 1987.

Tags Benjamin Netanyahu Donald Trump Israeli government Knesset Naftali Bennett Trial of Benjamin Netanyahu Yair Lapid Yamina Yesh Atid

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