Benjamin Netanyahu plots return to power as Israel heads for polls

For Yaron Tzidkiyahu, who runs a popular food stall in Jerusalem’s Machane Yehuda market, two things matter in next week’s Israeli election: the economy and security. Unhappy with the government’s approach, he plans to vote for Benjamin Netanyahu.

“I want someone else, but right now there is no one but Bibi,” he said, referring to the former prime minister by his widely used nickname. “Bibi is Gulliver in a land of pygmies.”

The November 1 election will be Israel’s fifth in three and a half years of political gridlock. Like the previous four, the poll is widely seen as a referendum on Netanyahu, a polarising figure who has been Israel’s leader for 15 of the past 26 years.

After his tenure was ended last year by an unwieldy eight-party coalition united mainly by its members’ desire to oust him, the 73-year-old finds himself the challenger for the first time in more than a decade. But his push to win back power is complicated by his trial on corruption charges relating to his relationships with wealthy businesspeople and media magnates during his time in office.

Netanyahu has dismissed the allegations of bribery, fraud and breach of trust as a witch hunt. But combined with a series of feuds with former allies amassed during his years in politics, they have given fuel to his opponents and narrowed his options for coalition-building — linking his political fate ever more closely with Israel’s far right.

Election campaign posters in the Israeli town of Or Akiva. Pollsters say the race is likely to turn on the performance of several smaller parties hovering around the electoral threshold © Amir Levy/Getty Images

Polls suggest the election is on a knife edge, with Netanyahu’s Likud party and allies just shy of the 61 seats needed for a majority in Israel’s Knesset. If neither his bloc, nor the one headed by the parties of prime minister Yair Lapid and defence minister Benny Gantz, can reach the threshold, there are two possibilities: either someone crosses Israel’s rancorous political divide, or there is yet another round of elections.

Dahlia Scheindlin, a pollster and political consultant, said that if there were to be a “surprise” from the voters that gave one side a majority, it was more likely to favour Netanyahu’s bloc. For the anti-Netanyahu bloc, the best chance of breaking the gridlock would be in the post-election horse-trading, she said.

Netanyahu’s fortunes will depend in part on a far-right grouping combining the Religious Zionist Party of Bezalel Smotrich, and the Jewish Power of Itamar Ben-Gvir, a once-fringe ultranationalist previously convicted of incitement to racism.

 Israel polling chart showing weekly polling averages for Knesset blocs, seat projections

During the previous election cycle, Netanyahu said Ben-Gvir — who used to keep a picture of Baruch Goldstein, an extremist who massacred 29 Palestinians in a mosque in 1994, in his home — was not fit to be a minister.

But as Ben-Gvir’s popularity has soared — polls put his and Smotrich’s grouping third behind Likud and Lapid’s Yesh Atid — Netanyahu has changed tack, saying Ben-Gvir could serve in his cabinet.

Smotrich has also made waves with plans for a radical overhaul of the judiciary. This would allow parliament, with a simple majority, to override supreme court rulings striking down legislation at odds with Israel’s Basic Laws. It would also give politicians control over the appointment of judges and scrap the offence of breach of trust — which is among the charges facing Netanyahu.

Smotrich said last week a way would be found to ensure this did not result in the termination of the cases against Netanyahu. More broadly, his party argues that the reforms are needed to rein in an overly powerful judiciary. But Lapid branded the proposals an attempt to resolve Netanyahu’s legal problems and claimed that if it won, Netanyahu’s bloc would “make every effort” to “destroy” the separation of powers in Israel.

Far-right lawmakers Itamar Ben-Gvir, left, and Bezalel Smotrich at a rally with supporters in southern Israel
Far-right lawmakers Itamar Ben-Gvir, left, and Bezalel Smotrich at a rally with supporters in southern Israel © Gil Cohen-Mgen/AFP/Getty Images

“What [the far-right parties] are pushing is the line that democracy means unrestrained majority rule and that the Knesset has no constraints at all,” said Scheindlin. “It’s another notch towards the erosion of the democratic institutions in Israel.”

Some observers have suggested Netanyahu could seek to use the spectre of an alliance with the far right — which has drawn concern from some US politicians — to strong-arm more moderate rightwingers, such as Gantz’s National Unity party, into his coalition instead.

However, Netanyahu and Gantz have both rejected this, and polls suggest Netanyahu would be unable to form a government without Smotrich and Ben-Gvir’s bloc. “The only person who would [break ranks and join Netanyahu] is Gantz. He’s done it before,” said one of Gantz’s allies. “But he doesn’t have the numbers.”

Pollsters say the race is likely to turn on the performance of several smaller parties hovering around the 3.25 per cent electoral threshold. But most of these — including the country’s three Arab groupings — are in the anti-Netanyahu bloc, meaning that near misses are more likely to work in his favour.

“The main issue now is the Arab vote,” said Rafi Smith, who has conducted polls for Likud during the campaign. “If it reaches 50 to 55 per cent turnout, the chance of the non-Netanyahu bloc increases. If it is low, the chance of a rightwing win is higher.”

Some observers think 60 seats could be enough for Netanyahu to return to power, since the pressure to avoid a sixth straight election would prompt some MPs to cross the aisle. “If you ask me to gamble, I think it’s quite clear that Netanyahu has the best chance,” said Aviv Bushinsky, who advised Netanyahu between 1996 and 2004 and is now a political analyst.

“But if [his bloc] ends up with less than 59 seats . . . it would be viewed as a failure. I think then that people in his party would say, ‘look, the majority of Israelis are rightwingers. The Knesset has a rightwing [majority] and the only reason we cannot take advantage of this is you. So please step down.’”

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