At 71 years old, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is in peak form. In the last year alone, he negotiated agreements to normalize relations with several Arab and Islamic countries without making any territorial concessions and succeeded in preventing tens of thousands of deaths from COVID-19.
Despite the widespread media attention given to the opposition to his policies, Israelis welcomed the normalization agreements, and opinion polls showed that 57 percent of the public approved of his government’s handling of the coronavirus crisis.
Yet when it came time to vote in the March 23 elections, the public nevertheless awarded the parties affirmatively supporting Netanyahu only 52 Knesset seats and 57 to the “not Bibi” bloc, as the media has organized the camps. Even with the seven mandates of the wayward Naftali Bennett and his Yamina Party, Netanyahu would not have enough for the absolute majority required to form a government.
And perhaps it was because of his disappointment with the results that the prime minister was uncharacteristically silent for several days after the election until last Wednesday night when he made a public statement. There are reasons for him to take heart, however. After all, “not Bibi” is not a candidate or a person capable of assuming the office of prime minister.
When it comes to actual persons running for the office, the truth is that Netanyahu won the election. His party won 30 Knesset seats, nearly double that of his nearest competitor, Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid Party. The “Bibi” bloc will comprise 52 seats and exceeds the bloc of parties that declared support for Lapid going into the election—Meretz, Labor and arguably Yisrael Beiteinu and Blue and White. Together, they won only 30 to 45 Knesset seats.
Regrettably, the Israeli electoral system does not inquire as to whom the public prefers as their leader; nor does it necessarily produce a leader based on its preference. However, the public’s lack of preference for any candidate other than Netanyahu will prevent his competitors either from forming a government or from forming a stable one.
That is to say, time is on Netanyahu’s side.
Even if Lapid or anyone else manages to earn more recommendations than Netanyahu to form a government, the likelihood of creating harmony out of the dissonant factions needed to form one is extremely low. Even if there were ideological accord among them, a leader must still have the political strength, including in the form of Knesset seats, to keep his political partners in line.
Netanyahu is the only such candidate. Lapid, the strongest candidate in the anti-Bibi camp, will control less than 15 percent of the Knesset, having earned just below 14 percent of the public’s support. The rest are only half as strong.
Thus, when all the dust settles, the mandate to form a government will likely fall again to Netanyahu. At that point, with the alternatives exhausted, some party head or individual Knesset members will (hopefully) take some responsibility and join his coalition. In fact, they might need to wait for these circumstances to arise to obtain the political cover to do so.
Alternatively, a coalition divided against itself will indeed coalesce to form an anti-Netanyahu government, only to dissolve, triggering new elections. Or no one may form a government and new elections will be held.
In that next round, Gideon Saar and his New Hope party will likely continue their slide into oblivion. Bennett’s failed attempt to gain public support for his candidacy for prime minister, and current flirtations with what can only be a left-wing government, may cause more of his voters to flock to his former partner and Netanyahu supporter Bezalel Smotrich.
If a brief anti-Netanyahu government is formed, its failures will make the public nostalgic for his leadership. Some distance may even alleviate the Netanyahu fatigue felt by a portion of the public.
It would be preferable if another round of elections wasting more of the public’s money could be avoided. But a manipulatable political system and a couple of (ex)right-wing and egotistic politicians with personal vendettas have conspired to throw Israel into chaos.
Between that and the charges of accepting gifts from a family friend and communications with publishers—and having already achieved more than at least a good portion of his predecessors—Netanyahu may be tempted to call it a day. But that would mean handing over the government to unpopular politicians with unpopular and dangerous policies. So, for our sakes, Netanyahu must remain not only strong and brave, but also patient.
Daniel Tauber is an attorney and Likud Central Committee member.