Is a Netanyahu comeback becoming more likely?

POLITICAL AFFAIRS: The current state of the coalition has people questioning if Benjamin Netanyahu will become PM again in the near future.

 NETANYAHU MAKES a statement at the Likud faction meeting this week. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
NETANYAHU MAKES a statement at the Likud faction meeting this week.

With the possible exception of David Ben-Gurion, no Israeli politician has ever been eulogized as much and yet cheated political death like Benjamin Netanyahu.

The eulogies for Netanyahu have intensified over the past year, when his political foes ousted him and created the most diverse government in Israeli history, just to keep him away from the Prime Minister’s Residence on Jerusalem’s Balfour Street.

Since the current coalition came together, it has appeared impossible that Netanyahu could ever form a government again, overcoming both the political vetoes of key figures on the Right and his ongoing corruption trial.

But over the past two weeks, the eulogies have been halted, and even the most anti-Netanyahu media have started speaking seriously – and objectively – about the possibility of a Netanyahu comeback. Channel 13, which Netanyahu made an effort to close down, and whose legal analysts are enemy No. 1 for Netanyahu loyalists, reported on Wednesday night about how the former prime minister can come back.

Bibi's trial

What brought about the upheaval in the analyses about the opposition leader was, first of all, his good luck in his trial. Over the past couple weeks, the top state’s witness, former Communications Ministry director-general Shlomo Filber, has repeatedly harmed the prosecution by denying key elements in its story about how Netanyahu tried to evade the law.

 OPPOSITION LEADER Benjamin Netanyahu with Likud MK Yariv Levin at a party faction meeting this week. (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST) OPPOSITION LEADER Benjamin Netanyahu with Likud MK Yariv Levin at a party faction meeting this week. (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)

The prosecution was scolded by the judges for seeking to change the indictment in Case 4000 following Filber’s apparently self-contradictory testimony. Even legal analysts who have repeatedly predicted that Netanyahu will end up in jail wrote that the prosecution has lost its momentum in the trial.

When asked in Hebrew about these developments at the courthouse, Netanyahu responded in English to the cameras:

“It’s incredible.”

Former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu

Netanyahu’s associates said Wednesday that they have never been more relieved that he did not accept a plea bargain before the departure of former attorney-general Avichai Mandelblit.

“The public is starting to realize that when Bibi said ‘there won’t be anything, because there isn’t anything,’ he knew what he was talking about,” a source close to Netanyahu said.

The disintegration of the government

The second reason for renewed optimism about a potential Netanyahu comeback is the rapid disintegration of Prime Minister Naftali Bennett’s inner circle in the Prime Minister’s Office. Over the past two weeks, he lost his powerful diplomatic adviser, Shimrit Meir, and his loyal chief of staff, Tal Gan-Zvi.

Meir’s departure, a month before US President Joe Biden’s visit, made it harder for Bennett to function. Bennett relied on Meir to be his conduit to the world, and she quickly earned respect among the movers and shakers from Washington to Europe to the Persian Gulf.

It was Gan-Zvi who pressured Bennett to get rid of Meir, who Gan-Zvi believed pushed the prime minister and leader of the Yamina (Rightward in Hebrew) Party too far to the Center-Left. She left of her own accord and still has not been replaced.

Politically, Gan-Zvi’s decision to leave Bennett was a bigger blow. He has been very close to Bennett since he entered politics in 2012. Over the past decade, Bennett and Gan-Zvi have been inseparable.

“I can’t believe he did that to him,” a political figure close to both men for a decade said in the Knesset cafeteria.

The timing was also surprising because Gan-Zvi had won his fight against Meir. With her out of the way, Gan-Zvi got Bennett to visit a settlement – Elkana – and the shiva house of Sr.-NCO Noam Raz of the police’s Counterterrorism Unit in the unauthorized outpost Keida.

Without Gan-Zvi, it will be harder for Bennett to keep wavering Yamina MK Nir Orbach, a close friend of Gan-Zvi and another ally of Bennett since he entered politics. Now there is no adviser whom Orbach can call and get to Bennett at a moment’s notice.

That is in part why recent developments in Bennett’s coalition are the final element that have made Netanyahu’s doubters rethink their political eulogies.

According to the coalition agreement, if two coalition MKs on the Right (not including rebel Yamina MK Amichai Chikli) defect and topple the government, Alternate Prime Minister Yair Lapid would become prime minister of a caretaker government that would govern during the election and until a new coalition is formed.

Only one right-wing MK, like Orbach, would be needed to join former coalition chairwoman Idit Silman in initiating an election and bringing Lapid to power. Likud faction chairman Yariv Levin, the political arm of Netanyahu, has not hidden that this is the opposition leader’s goal.

Levin has revealed that Netanyahu believes that if Lapid becomes prime minister, it would wake up the Right. According to his thesis, a Lapid premiership would motivate the right-wing masses more than ever to go vote and save the country from the “Left,” a word Netanyahu helped make a slur that is much easier to apply to Lapid than to Bennett.

Perhaps with the help of a new party formed by Chikli taking former Yamina and New Hope voters, the strategy is to get 61 MKs for Netanyahu’s bloc by taking advantage of the Right’s fear of Lapid.

Another fear that Netanyahu’s associates believe can return him to power is the fear of elections. A source close to Netanyahu suggested that Levin could be deliberately misleading the media – and wavering MKs on the Right – by talking so openly about elections being Netanyahu’s goal.

Perhaps the opposition leader’s real goal is to get enough defectors from Yamina, New Hope and Blue and White to form a new government in the current Knesset. That is why every wink from Blue and White leader Benny Gantz to Netanyahu is hyper-analyzed.

It is also why the shallow, short-lived rebellions of Meretz MK Ghaida Rinawie Zoabi and Blue and White MK Michael Biton were not nearly as important as the much less noticed vote against a Ra’am (United Arab List)-sponsored bill by New Hope faction chairwoman Sharren Haskel on Wednesday.

“The real goal is to get 61 MKs in this Knesset,” a Likud official said. “We are working hard to get all the necessary cards in Netanyahu’s hand. He is not using the cards he has yet, because he has to finalize the last deals, and the timing has to be right. We want to topple the current, artificial government and return Netanyahu to where he belongs based on what the majority of the country wants.”

The longer it takes to bring about that upheaval, the more the Likud goes up in the polls, which only helps scare New Hope and Yamina MKs to avoid elections and enable a new right-wing government to be formed in the current Knesset.

It is also still possible that the fear of both Lapid and elections could result in pressure on Netanyahu to stand aside and let another Likudnik form a government before the rotation in the Prime Minister’s Office that is set for August 2023. But that will only come into play if Bennett’s government lasts longer than currently expected and the momentum in Netanyahu’s trial shifts back to the prosecution.

Barring those developments, Netanyahu will remain the leading figure on the Right and its candidate for prime minister in this Knesset or in an election.

A successful comeback after he failed in four elections still remains far-fetched. But he has surprised both his strongest supporters and worst enemies before. Don’t rule out being surprised once again.