Two weeks ago in this space, we asked the then-seminal question “To Bibi or Not to Bibi?” Now we turn to an even more complicated query: “Which Bibi?”
Now that Netanyahu has claimed a decisive victory in the most recent Israeli elections, speculation turns to what type of government he will form. Given his alliance with a bloc of religious and far-right parties that was necessary to achieve a majority in the Knesset, most observers assume that the once and future prime minister will turn over key cabinet positions to the leaders of those partners and give them great leeway in fashioning his government’s policy agenda. Netanyahu has always been careful not to allow himself to be outflanked to his right, and with polling that shows 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 plenty of times before. He knows that a government held hostage by the Religious Zionist Party (RZP) would not be a particularly pleasant experience for him. It would be enough to allow him to escape his legal difficulties—and that might be all he needs or wants—but Israeli voters have moved rightward primarily as a reaction to the war with Hamas last year and the subsequent upsurge in terrorism. It’s not clear whether a voting majority is on board with some of RZP’s other goals, and so it’s entirely possible that Netanyahu will look elsewhere when forming his governing coalition.
This is where Netanyahu’s former allies Benny Gantz and Gideon Sa’ar may come back into the picture. Both Gantz and Sa’ar parted ways with Netanyahu not over policy differences but because of his legal troubles. They have already announced that their National Unity Party will stand in opposition to Netanyahu’s anticipated alliance with the religious parties. But Netanyahu surely recognizes that a unity government could either exclude the religious bloc altogether or at least limit their power within the government. Their most extremist demands would be less likely to sway Netanyahu if he knows he is not completely reliant on their votes to remain in office.
The question is what Netanyahu could offer Gantz and Sa’ar and their followers in exchange for their support, given their strong disapproval of his efforts to avoid judicial consequences for his past actions. But the additional sweetener of limiting the RZP’s influence on Israeli society, combined with significant policy concessions and political opportunities for the two men themselves, could create an opportunity for an implausible but mutually beneficial partnership.
The fork in the road for Netanyahu is not nearly as dramatic as choosing between left and right. For all practical purposes, with the failure of the Meretz Party to win any seats in the new Knesset and the near-irrelevance of the once-powerful Labor Party, there is no meaningful political left remaining in Israel.
So the choice for Bibi is between center-right and far-right. While the religious parties have brought him to this position, their goals may not reflect the thinking of the broader Israeli public. Centrists like Gantz, Sa’ar, Naftali Bennett and Yair Lapid may not inspire as much passion from their supporters as Itamar Ben-Gvir and his RZP colleagues, but they might offer Netanyahu stability that would be helpful to him going forward. Netanyahu knows that he can still inspire, but the centrist establishment offers him a sustainability that 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 with 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 stay out of jail. This 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.