Netanyahu Won't Get Chance to Retake Leadership Position as Israel Avoids Snap Elections

Former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will not get a chance to retake his old position for years, now that Israel has passed a national budget and avoided snap elections, the Associated Press reported.

Netanyahu, who inspired both intense devotion and mass demonstrations while the nation's leader, will serve as opposition leader while also facing corruption charges. He is on trial for fraud, breach of trust and bribery, charges he denies.

In a statement ahead of Wednesday's budget vote, he said, "We will continue to fight this awful government. We will leave no stone unturned. We will look for any way to topple it, to return Israel to the right track."

If a budget had not been passed by November 14, the dissolution of the government and snap elections would have given Netanyahu a chance for a comeback. He could return to power if the government, a coalition of eight ideologically diverse parties, breaks down, the AP said. Otherwise, his next chance will be when the government rotates its leadership in 2023.

For more reporting from the Associated Press, see below.

Former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu
Former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will not get a chance to return to power after Israel passed a national budget and avoided snap elections. Above, Netanyahu speaks during a session of the Knesset on October 4. Ariel Schalit/Associated Press

"It changes the time frame for him," said Anshel Pfeffer, a columnist at the left-leaning Haaretz daily and a Netanyahu biographer. "It doesn't mean he's going to give up. He's not going to give up. He's incapable of giving up."

Aviv Bushinsky, a former Netanyahu aide, said Netanyahu is better off biding his time as opposition leader, a public platform from which he can contest the legal charges and ratchet up support from constituents.

"Right now he's in no hurry. He has nothing to lose," he said.

Netanyahu, a major figure in Israeli politics for the last quarter-century, suffered a dramatic downfall earlier this year.

He began a 12-year run as prime minister in 2009, after an earlier stint in the 1990s, becoming Israel's longest-serving leader and helping to shape the country. He was ubiquitous on the world stage, preaching against Iran's nuclear program and the accord with world powers meant to rein it in. He ramped up settlement building in the occupied West Bank, avoided peace talks with the Palestinians and presided over three wars against the Hamas militant group ruling Gaza.

He worked hard to convince 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 has traveled to the global climate summit, steered Israel through a fourth COVID-19 wave and passed a budget, that argument has eroded.

"Suddenly you don't need to be Benjamin Netanyahu to be the prime minister of Israel. And that in itself has sort of been a revelation," Pfeffer said.

Netanyahu also used his office to divide Israelis, whipping up nationalists against dovish leftists, Jewish Israelis against Palestinian citizens of Israel and railing against the country's institutions, especially after he was indicted in three corruption cases.

Under Israeli law, Netanyahu did not have to step down after being indicted, leaving him a bully pulpit from which he could fight the charges, push to legislate immunity and air his grievances against the media and the judicial system.

After early elections in April 2019, Netanyahu was unable to form a coalition, with some of his former allies refusing to sit in government with him. Israel entered a lengthy political crisis, holding three more elections in less than two years. Protesters around the country descended on city squares and main intersections, demanding Netanyahu resign.

Netanyahu, dubbed a political wizard for repeatedly surviving threats to his rule, saw his magic run out in June, when a disparate constellation of political parties joined forces to oust him. In a Shakespearean twist, Bennett, Netanyahu's former aide turned rival, was picked to helm the coalition.

Netanyahu, known for enjoying the luxuries of office and hobnobbing with world leaders, was relegated to the post of opposition leader as others swiftly moved into the limelight.

With a robust base and a coterie of loyal lawmakers, he has kept up a lively social media presence and still makes public appearances. His allies heckle and shout over Bennett's speeches in the Knesset, Israel's parliament.

But he no longer drives the agenda. He has done his utmost to undermine the current government, calling it illegitimate, compelling opposition lawmakers to boycott parliamentary committees and vowing to return to office. Israeli media have reported attempts by his right-wing Likud party to lure defectors from the coalition, efforts that have so far been unsuccessful.

Israeli Justice Minister Gideon Saar, meanwhile, has been promoting legislation that would block an indicted lawmaker from being allowed to form a government, a bill he says was not crafted to target his former mentor.

Netanyahu isn't expected to resign after the budget defeat, even as some allies lose patience with being out of government, including one who is challenging him for the Likud leadership. Netanyahu is expected to prevail, but the challenge exposes cracks in his hold on the party.

If he does unexpectedly leave parliament, that would likely be what finally topples the coalition.

"The strongest glue binding the coalition is the existence of Netanyahu," said Avraham Diskin, a political analyst. "If Netanyahu quits, then that presents a serious chance for the coalition to fall."