The Benjamin Netanyahu era seemed to meet its definitive end last summer.
But Israel’s hawkish former prime minister — and longtime thorn in the side of President Biden, Barack Obama and other Democrats who favor diplomacy with Iran’s anti-Israel theocratic regime — has a chance to return to power after a stunning political shake-up that has the Jewish state barreling toward its fifth election in three years.
The rapid collapse of the anti-Netanyahu coalition government on Monday didn’t happen by accident, regional analysts say. Mr. Netanyahu, 72, who led Israel from 1996 to 1999 and from 2009 to June 2021, worked feverishly behind the scenes to whip up opposition to Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and undermine an eight-party governing alliance that was united almost solely by its desire to push Mr. Netanyahu out of power.
Observers say it’s the latest example of Mr. Netanyahu’s unmatched political skill and unparalleled understanding of his nation’s mood. Those traits have carried him through electoral setbacks and personal scandals over the decades that would have quickly sunk less-determined rivals.
“He just tanked the current government. His strategy was to peel away members of the coalition and to erode it seat by seat. He’s done that,” said Jonathan Schanzer, senior vice president for research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a Washington think tank.
“No one knows Israeli politics better. They say some people play checkers and some people play chess. He plays 3D chess in dealing with the Israeli political system,” Mr. Schanzer said.
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Mr. Bennett, a onetime aide to Mr. Netanyahu, announced Monday that he would dissolve parliament after several key lawmakers withdrew their support for the government. Elections are tentatively set for October. Foreign Minister Yair Lapid, an ally of Mr. Bennett, will serve as caretaker prime minister in the meantime.
Resetting the agenda
The timing of Israel’s latest leadership struggle will create some awkward and unsettling moments. The past four elections did not deliver a workable majority for any of the major factions.
As interim leader, Mr. Lapid is expected to meet with Mr. Biden next month when the U.S. president makes a long-awaited visit. It will be a crucial moment in U.S.-Israeli relations, with the Biden administration forging ahead in talks with Iran to strike a new deal limiting Tehran’s nuclear program in exchange for economic sanctions relief.
Mr. Bennett’s vocal criticism of those negotiations pales in comparison with that of his opposition, at least from a public relations perspective. Mr. Netanyahu bashed President Obama’s 2015 nuclear pact with Iran at every turn. He warned that the agreement would endanger Israel and the broader Middle East.
Mr. Netanyahu delivered his most famous broadside during an unprecedented 2015 speech to Congress attacking American policy. Republicans, who controlled the House at the time, had invited the Israeli prime minister to speak.
President Trump pulled the U.S. out of its nuclear pact with Iran in 2018 and reinstituted a harsh set of sanctions. Now with Mr. Biden in office, Secretary of State Antony Blinken and special Iran envoy Robert Malley are trying to revive that deal, though negotiations have stalled in recent months.
Another Netanyahu term would add public pressure to the Biden administration and its diplomatic outreach to Iran. Still, analysts say opposition to a new nuclear deal would remain the dominant political position in Israel no matter who takes over as prime minister.
The leadership shake-up also could complicate other Biden administration priorities. The White House has been trying to facilitate the normalization of relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia in what would be a monumental change for Middle East politics and represent an end to decades of hostility between the two nations.
Such a deal would build on the Trump-era Abraham Accords, which ended the Jewish state’s historic isolation in the Arab world by normalizing relations with the United Arab Emirates. Israel also normalized relations with Bahrain and Morocco in 2020.
Thawing relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia were expected to be at the top of the agenda for Mr. Biden’s visit to Israel. It’s unclear whether that will change, given the new political reality.
“There appeared to be some movement on the Saudi-Israeli normalization front. It’s unclear whether the Biden administration will want to make any big moves, and it’s also unclear whether the Saudis will be willing to make any big moves given that there is upheaval” in Israel, Mr. Schanzer said.
Mr. Netanyahu has a great deal to do to secure another term as prime minister. Political observers note that there is no sign he can overcome the kind of gridlock that doomed his government last spring and summer.
He is also on trial on corruption charges, though he denies any wrongdoing. Some Israeli lawmakers have reportedly discussed enacting laws prohibiting a politician under indictment from serving as prime minister. Such a law would legally end Mr. Netanyahu’s prospects.
Even members of former Netanyahu-led governments, such as Defense Minister Benny Gantz, say they will oppose his run.
“Honestly, in pain and sorrow, I say he has exhausted the political trust that can be given to him,” Mr. Gantz said Monday.
For liberal Israelis, the prospect of Mr. Netanyahu’s return to power sparks something akin to the feeling U.S. Democrats express at the idea of Mr. Trump — who had close relations with Mr. Netanyahu — winning back the White House in 2024.
“The upcoming elections will be the final and decisive battle for the state of Israel,” columnist Ben Caspit wrote for the Israeli newspaper Maariv on Tuesday. “In one corner will be Israel’s image as a democratic country in the spirit of the Declaration of Independence. In the other corner will be the Netanyahu and Bibi-ism cult in all its might. The side that is defeated will probably never recover.”
Mr. Netanyahu is banking on the idea that Israeli voters, having lived through a year of the shaky Naftali coalition, will conclude that his more direct style is best suited to lead the country.
In a blistering statement Monday, Mr. Netanyahu took direct aim at the coalition government, which spanned the ideological spectrum. It included Israeli Arabs and conservative Israeli factions that support the settler movement in lands claimed by Palestinians.
The coalition lasted a year, longer than many expected, and approved a politically difficult budget, but its one-vote majority in the Knesset left it continually vulnerable to defections.
“After a year’s determined struggle by the opposition in the Knesset and great suffering by the public in Israel, it is clear to everyone that the worst government in Israeli history has come to an end,” Mr. Netanyahu said in a statement, according to The Times of Israel.
“A government that was dependent on supporters of terrorism, that abandoned the personal security of Israeli citizens, that raised the cost of living to unprecedented heights, that imposed unnecessary taxes, that endangered the Jewish character of our state, this government is going home,” he said.
The coalition government, with its strange bedfellows and host of competing political priorities and positions, had shown signs of stress for months.
“If they had kept the government together, it was going to look like death by a thousand cuts,” Mr. Schanzer said.
The final blow was delivered when Mr. Bennett couldn’t secure enough votes to extend certain legal rights to Jewish settlers in the West Bank, such as their right to receive Israeli health insurance. Mr. Netanyahu’s supporters backed the policy but voted against the measure as a way to embarrass the government.
With the dissolution, those rights will roll over to the next government.
“Israel will endure heavy security damage and constitutional chaos” without extending those rights, Mr. Bennett said Monday while explaining his decision to step down and pave the way for new elections.
“That, I could not allow,” he said.
• This article is based in part on wire service reports.