The man whose shadow loomed so long over Israel, whose rule sparked mass protests and cult devotion, has been relegated to the background as leader of the opposition, far from the levers of power and exposed to serious accusations of corruption.
The first budget to be passed in three years, during which a prolonged period of political stalemate sparked four divisive elections, was a stress test for Israel’s rebellious coalition government.
“It changes the time frame for him,” said Anshel Pfeffer, a columnist for the left-leaning daily Haaretz and a biographer of Netanyahu. “It does not mean that he is going to give up. Will not back down. He is unable to give up. “
Failure to pass the budget before November 14 would have resulted in the dissolution of the government and snap elections, giving Netanyahu, who is rising in the polls, a chance at redemption. Now that it has passed, the government, established with the goal of overthrowing Netanyahu, appears to have bought some time. Coalition parties are fighting at the polls and neither is likely to want to overthrow the government and trigger new elections, for now.
Netanyahu’s best hope is that the coalition, made up of eight ideologically diverse parties, will implode on its own contradictions. Otherwise, his next chance will come when the government rotates its leadership in 2023, bringing the centrist Yair Lapid to power and perhaps giving his nationalist coalition partners a reason to flee.
Aviv Bushinsky, a former adviser to Netanyahu, said Netanyahu would do well to bide his time as leader of the opposition, a public platform from which he can challenge legal charges and increase constituency support.
“Right now you are in no rush. You have nothing to lose, ”he said.
Addressing parliament on Wednesday before the budget vote, Netanyahu vowed to continue.
“We will continue to fight against this terrible government. We will not leave a stone unturned, we will find a way to tear it down, to return Israel to the right path, “he said.
Netanyahu, a major figure in Israeli politics for the past quarter century, suffered a dramatic decline earlier this year.
He began a 12-year career as prime minister in 2009, after an earlier stint in the 1990s, becoming Israel’s oldest leader and helping to shape the country. He was ubiquitous on the world stage, preaching against Iran’s nuclear program and the deal with world powers aimed at curbing it. He stepped up settlement construction in the West Bank, avoided peace talks with the Palestinians, and presided over three Hamas wars on terror. group that rules Gaza.
He worked hard to convince the Israelis that he was a world-class statesman, the only one who could safely guide Israel through its myriad challenges. But under Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, who traveled to the global climate summit, led Israel through a fourth wave of COVID-19 and passed a budget, that argument has eroded.
“Suddenly, you don’t have to be Benjamin Netanyahu to be the prime minister of Israel. And that in itself has been something of a revelation, “said Pfeffer.
Netanyahu also used his office to divide Israelis, whipping nationalists against moderate leftists, Jewish Israelis against Palestinian citizens of Israel, and criticizing the country’s institutions, especially after he was indicted in three corruption cases.
Netanyahu is on trial for fraud, breach of trust and bribery, charges he denies but which marred his last years in office. Under Israeli law, Netanyahu did not have to resign after being indicted, leaving him as a pulpit of intimidation from which he could fight charges, press for immunity legislation and air his complaints against the media and the judicial system.
After snap elections in April 2019, Netanyahu was unable to form a coalition, and some of his former allies refused to sit in government with him. Israel entered a long political crisis, holding three more elections in less than two years. Protesters from across the country reached city squares and major intersections, demanding Netanyahu’s resignation.
Netanyahu, dubbed a political wizard for repeatedly surviving threats to his government, saw his magic run out in June when a disparate constellation of political parties joined forces to topple him. In a Shakespearean twist, Bennett, Netanyahu’s former assistant turned rival, was chosen to lead the coalition.
Netanyahu, known for enjoying the luxuries of office and rubbing shoulders with world leaders, was relegated to the position of leader of the opposition as others quickly moved into the spotlight.
With a strong foundation and a loyal circle of lawmakers, he has maintained a lively social media presence and still makes public appearances. His allies boo and shout Bennett’s speeches in the Knesset, Israel’s parliament.
But he no longer directs the agenda.
He has done everything he can to undermine the current government, calling it illegitimate, forcing opposition lawmakers to boycott parliamentary committees, and vowing to return to power. Israeli media have reported attempts by its right-wing Likud party to lure deserters from the coalition, efforts that have so far been unsuccessful.
Meanwhile, Justice Minister Gideon Saar has been promoting legislation that would prevent an accused lawmaker from forming a government, a bill he says was not crafted to target his former mentor.
Netanyahu is not expected to resign after the budget defeat, even as some allies lose patience with being out of government, including one challenging him over Likud leadership. Netanyahu is expected to prevail, but the challenge exposes cracks in his grip on the party.
If he unexpectedly leaves parliament, that is likely to be what will eventually topple the coalition.
“The strongest glue that binds the coalition together is the existence of Netanyahu,” said Avraham Diskin, a political analyst. “If Netanyahu resigns, that presents a great possibility that the coalition will fall.”