3 min read
The Comeback: How Benjamin Netanyahu Became Prime Minister Again and what will it mean for Israel

Yeshaya Gedzelman

On November 3rd of 2021, I had the chance to meet the former (and incoming) Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin ("Bibi") Netanyahu at the Knesset, at quite an unpleasant moment for him. The Naftali Bennet and Yair Lapid governing coalition were in the midst of achieving a major victory, narrowly passing the budget in the Knesset (60 in favor-59 against) for the first time in 3 years. I waited outside his office to meet him because I guessed he would be returning there soon, to get back to work. After all, Netanyahu has been the longest serving Prime Minister in Israel's history, an achievement that would not be possible if he did not have resilience and determination. Sure enough, 20 minutes later, Bibi was heading towards his office, flanked by an entourage of bodyguards. We had a brief conversation and upon parting, I told him "I'm looking forward to seeing you as prime minister again". 

On that November 3rd day though, it seemed anything but a foregone conclusion. After 4 elections and a few years of political deadlock, Israelis were feeling fatigued and frustrated by the stalemate between the pro-Bibi and anti-Bibi camps. Netanyahu's failure to prevent Bennet from passing the budget, had led to rumblings within the Likud party about potentially replacing him. Yuli Edelstein, Nir Barakat, Miriam Regev and others, had begun to openly contemplate a post-Netanyahu Likud. Some Likud members were enticed by a post-Netanyahu Likud, one that could allow the party to enter into agreements with parties that refused to deal with the Likud, so long as it was being led by Netanyahu. 

Despite these obstacles, over the past year, Bibi was able to continue leading the Likud. Following the collapse of the anti-Bibi coalition, he managed to pull off an epic comeback in the Israeli elections in November. His right-wing bloc, comprised of the Likud (32 seats) Religious Zionism (14 seats), Shas (11 seats) and United Torah Judaism [UTJ] (7 seats) won 64 of 120 Knesset seats, make him the next likely Prime Minister. 

To assemble a governing coalition, a Member of Knesset must garner a majority of 61 Knesset members to support their bid to lead the government. In order to determine the distribution of Knesset seats, Israelis vote for their preferred party and after all the votes are counted and any party that doesn't receive 3.25% of the total vote count, fails to make the Knesset. The 3.25% minimum is often called the "threshold", because votes for this party aren't considered in the final distribution of the Knesset seats. Although no party has ever won an outright majority of 61 seats, parties can gain the support of other parties and their Knesset seats, by promising their leadership a range of incentives, that might include benefits for a specific community and/or important positions in the new government, such as the Finance Ministry, or appointments to key Knesset Committees.

During the election campaign, Netanyahu once again demonstrated his ability to broker deals, in an effort to avoid wasting right-wing votes. He helped to unite Betzalel Smotritch, Avi Moaz and Itamar Ben Gvir behind the banner of Religious Zionism, an effort that paid dividends after Religious Zionism became the third biggest party in the Knesset, winning 14 seats. Netanyahu also made a successful effort to prevent the division of UTJ, into 2 smaller parties, Aguda and Degel Hatorah. The 2 sides agreed to put aside their differences, because of Bibi's promise that Haredi schools (aka "Yeshivas") would receive state funding, regardless of whether the Haredi schools taught secular subjects or not. 

In contrast, the leader of the Anti-Bibi coalition, Yair Lapid, missed a number of opportunities to ensure left-wing votes were not wasted. The head of Labor, Merav Michaeli, refused Lapid's incentive-laden overtures to merge Labor with the far-left party Meretz, with Labor putting out a statement that "a union between the parties was tried in the past and was a total failure". Lapid was also unable to prevent the collapse of the Joint List party. This proved disastrous for Lapid, as numerous Arab parties failed to make it past the 3.25% threshold, which meant less anti-Bibi votes would be counted. The far-left Meretz also failed to make it past the threshold, an unmitigated disaster for a party that won 6 seats last year and joined the anti-Bibi governing coalition. Lapid's failure to unite Labor-Meretz, proved to be a costly failure, costing his bloc 151,000 votes, since Meretz did not pass the threshold. 

In the next few days, Negotiations will continue in earnest between Netanyahu and the leaders of his right wing political allies, including Bezalel Smotrich and Itamar Ben Gvir of Religious Zionism, Aryeh Deri of Shas and Yitzhak Goldenknopf of UTJ. Netanyahu has reportedly offered the Finance Ministry to Smotrich, who will be replaced in 2 years by Deri. It has also been reported that Ben Gvir will be given the new title of "public security" Minister, giving him control over some security forces (including the police). 

Although the 4 parties have reached an agreement in some areas of the negotiations, a full agreement has yet to be struck. Still, it is likely Netanyahu will be able to strike a deal in the next few days that would initiate arguably the most right-wing government in Israel's history. When a final coalition agreement is reached between the Likud and its right-wing allies, it will mark the return of Israel's longest serving Prime Minister and a return for the Israeli left-wing to the Knesset opposition.

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