By Dan Schnur
Two weeks ago, in this space, we posed the then seminal question, “To Bibi or Not to Bibi?” Now let’s move on to an even more complicated query: “Which Bibi?”
Now that Netanyahu has claimed a decisive victory in Israel’s latest elections, speculation is turning to what kind of government he will form. Given his alliance with a bloc of religious and far-right parties that was necessary to secure a majority in the Knesset, most observers assume that the former and future prime minister will cede key cabinet posts to the leaders of these partners and will allow them a great deal of leeway in shaping his government’s political programme. Netanyahu has always been careful not to get outflanked to his right, and with polls showing the Israeli electorate continuing to move in that direction, his most obvious next step would be to cement those relationships.
But Bibi has been here many times before. He knows that a government held hostage by the Religious Zionist Party would not be a particularly pleasant experience for him. That would be enough to get him out of his legal troubles – and that may be all he needs or wants – but Israeli voters have shifted to the right mainly in reaction to the war with Hamas last year and the subsequent upsurge in terrorism. It’s unclear whether a majority vote agrees with some of RZP’s other goals, and so it’s entirely possible that Netanyahu will look the other way when forming his governing coalition.
This is where Netanyahu’s former allies Benny Gantz and Gideon Sa’ar could come back to the fore. Both Gantz and Saar parted company with Netanyahu, not because of political differences, but because of his legal troubles. They have already announced that their National Unity Party will oppose Netanyahu’s anticipated alliance with religious parties. But Netanyahu surely recognizes that a unity government could either completely exclude the religious bloc or at least limit its power in government. Their most extreme demands would be less likely to sway Netanyahu if he knew he was not entirely dependent on their votes to stay in power.
The question is what Netanyahu might offer Gantz and Sa’ar and their supporters in return for their support, given their strong disapproval of his efforts to avoid legal consequences for his past actions. But the added sweetener of limiting the RZP’s influence on Israeli society, combined with significant political concessions and political opportunities for the two men themselves, could create an opportunity for an unlikely but mutually beneficial partnership.
The fork in the road for Netanyahu is not as dramatic as choosing between left and right. For all intents and purposes, with the failure of the Meretz party to win seats in the new Knesset and the near-relevance of the once powerful Labor party, there is no significant political left left in Israel.
The choice for Bibi is therefore between the centre-right and the extreme right. While religious parties have brought him to this position, their goals may not reflect the thinking of the mainstream Israeli public. Centrists like Gantz, Saar, Naftali Bennett and Yair Lapid may not inspire their followers as passionately as Itamar Ben-Gvir and his RZP colleagues, but they could provide Netanyahu with stability that would serve him well in the future. the future. Netanyahu knows he can still inspire, but the centrist establishment offers him a durability he might not be able to achieve without them.
Netanyahu will ultimately make his decision based on whether his long-term aspirations outweigh his more immediate needs. He is already Israel’s longest-serving prime minister, but has yet to achieve the iconic status of some of his predecessors. Part of him is very concerned about his legacy, and he wants to be remembered as Israel’s greatest leader rather than a polarizing figure.
But he also wants to avoid a conviction and not go to prison. That means the history books might have to wait.
Dan Schnur is a professor at the University of California-Berkeley, USC and Pepperdine. This article was originally published by the Jewish Journal.