If Netanyahu cannot make a comeback, this could be his last election - analysis

Even if Benjamin Netanyahu can win the election and form a coalition, he may well receive the treatment from the opposition that he dished out.

 Head of the Likud party MK Benjamin Netanyahu at a Likud Party election event in Qiryat Shemona, October 24, 2022.  (photo credit: MICHAL GILADI/FLASH90)
Head of the Likud party MK Benjamin Netanyahu at a Likud Party election event in Qiryat Shemona, October 24, 2022.
(photo credit: MICHAL GILADI/FLASH90)

Tuesday’s election will not be Likud head Benjamin Netanyahu’s first rodeo. Not by a long shot.

In fact, this will be the 11th time that he has been on the ballot as head of the Likud list, stretching back to 1996.

After five of those elections, he was able to form a coalition – and after the other five, he was not. In other words, he’s batting .500. This election will be the tie-breaker, at least in regard to his own personal win-loss column.

But if Netanyahu doesn’t succeed this time, this may very well be his last rodeo.

If the pro-Netanyahu bloc can’t cobble together 61 seats after this election, many political observers are predicting that the Likud faction – which has been incredibly loyal to him and patient since the first election in this current cycle going back to April 2019 – will show the long-time party leader the door, realizing that with him at the party’s helm, they will simply not be able to return to power.

 Israeli opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu is seen speaking at the Givat Harel outpost in the West Bank just days before the elections, on October 26, 2022. (credit: TOVAH LAZAROFF) Israeli opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu is seen speaking at the Givat Harel outpost in the West Bank just days before the elections, on October 26, 2022. (credit: TOVAH LAZAROFF)

This has been said before. After Netanyahu failed to put together a coalition following the 2021 elections, headlines in Israel and around the world trumpeted the end of the Netanyahu era, “the fall of King Bibi.” Those headlines were premature.

Though Netanyahu’s failure since 2019 to put together a stable coalition after four tries has badly tarnished his image as a political wizard and the Houdini of Israeli politics, he is once again – this time at the age of 73 – within reach of regaining the premiership, making him in terms of sheer endurance the Iron Man of Israel’s politics. King Bibi might have fallen, but Prime Minister Netanyahu may still rise again.

If he does – if Netanyahu manages to emerge from Tuesday’s balloting the proud owner of a spanking new 61-seat, right-wing government made up of the Likud, the Religious Zionist Party, Shas and United Torah Judaism – then what? Can he drive such a vehicle? And what kind of a ride will it be?

Before he even gets into such a car, Netanyahu would do well to remember one thing: Everything that goes around comes around.

Just as Netanyahu and the Likud made it their mission in life in June 2021 to bring down the narrow Bennett-Lapid government – even if it meant voting against things they believed in, and even if it meant sacrificing what was good for the country – so, too, would a Lapid-led opposition likely try to do the same.

When a coalition has a majority of only one or two votes, the opposition smells blood from the outset, realizing that all it takes is peeling a couple of MKs away from the government and the whole house of MKs falls down.

Inevitable pleas to put to the side past recriminations and work for the good of the country will fall on the deaf ears of those who did not benefit from the same type of treatment when the political fortunes were reversed. Netanyahu gave no grace to the outgoing government, and should expect none in return if he ends up with a 61- or 62-seat bloc after Tuesday’s voting.

One of the problems with Israel’s electoral system – especially when the sides are so evenly matched – is that the campaign never ends. Election Day might signal the end of one campaign, but the day after a new coalition is sworn in signals the beginning of the next.

For the last few weeks, Netanyahu has inundated social media with ads imploring those Likud voters who sat out the last elections to turn out this time and provide that one extra seat that will allow him to cross the 61-seat hurdle. But Netanyahu knows well that this is not enough.

Sixty-one is the bare minimum in the 120-seat Knesset. To govern effectively, to not be at the mercy of any one of his three likely coalition partners, he needs more MKs and more parties in the coalition.

How did Netanyahu's other governments go?

Of the five Netanyahu governments so far, the ones that lasted the longest were the second, from 2009-2013, and the fourth, from 2015-2020.

Both of those coalitions were large, the second ranging at various times from 74 to 94 seats and comprising eight parties, and the fourth government having 67 seats and seven parties.

In each of these governments, the Likud was positioned in the center, flanked on the Left in 2009 by Labor and Kadima, and on the Right by Yisrael Beytenu and Bayit Yehudi. In 2015, the Likud was flanked on the Left by Kulanu and on the Right again by Yisrael Beytenu and Bayit Yehudi, with the addition of the New Right.

That is Netanyahu’s comfort zone – being in the center of his own government. That way, when it comes to diplomatic matters, if there is pressure from the Americans to make some concessions to the Palestinians, he can blame the Right flank of the government for blocking his path, and if the Right slams him for not promoting settlement throughout Judea and Samaria, he can blame the Left inside his government for preventing such a move.

In a four-party, right-wing coalition that might emerge from Tuesday’s voting, there would likely be no party on the Likud’s Left upon which he could counterbalance demands from the Right. Furthermore, each coalition partner would have tremendous leverage because each one – alone – could bring down the government.

It is telling how in the last few days of the campaign Netanyahu, who brokered the alliance between Itamar Ben-Gvir and Bezalel Smotrich in August, has gone on the offensive against their joint list. In a meeting last week with haredi journalists, he went so far as to say that a vote for religious Zionists was a vote for Lapid.

His logic? If those on the Right vote for Smotrich and Ben-Gvir, it means they aren’t voting for Likud, which means the Likud will drop in seats. If Likud drops, and Lapid rises, then a situation could be created in which Yesh Atid would overtake Likud as the largest party, and be given the first chance by the president to form a government.

Sound far-fetched? Extremely, but it is indicative of the concern Netanyahu has of a Religious Zionist Party much bigger than he bargained for.

Netanyahu originally made the match between Ben-Gvir and Smotrich to make sure that they would run together, so that one party – if they ran separately – would not fall under the electoral threshold and those right-wing votes be “wasted.”

Now his concern is that the party will be too large, depriving him of his ability to give key ministries to the Likud, and complicating Israel’s relations with the world. A Religious Zionist Party of six or seven seats, he can explain to worried interlocutors abroad, is an outlier in his government. A Religious Zionist Party with 14 seats – almost as many as UTJ and Shas combined, Netanyahu’s other two coalition parties – would be a central axis.

In Netanyahu’s ideal coalition, the Religious Zionist Party on the Right would be balanced off by another party to his Left, such as Benny Gantz’s National Unity Party. But the chances of Gantz, burned by Netanyahu in 2020 when he joined a rotation government with him only to be jilted before it was his turn to take over as prime minister, are slim. Proof again that everything that goes around comes around.

Netanyahu might pull off an unprecedented comeback on Tuesday. No other prime minister has come back more than once after being turned out of office, and this would mark his second comeback. But staying in office, unless he can get another party or a significant number of MKs from other parties to join his bloc, will prove one long, continuous battle that will demand the endurance and stamina of an Iron Man – and even that might not be enough.