TEL AVIV, Israel — Former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu watched from the sidelines Thursday as the government that toppled him after 12 years in power passed a national budget, dealing a major blow to his hopes of a swift return to the country’s top office.
The man whose shadow loomed so large for so long over Israel, whose rule sparked both mass protests and cult-like devotion, has been relegated to the backbenches as opposition leader, far from the levers of power and exposed to serious corruption charges.
The first budget to be passed in three years, during which a prolonged period of political gridlock brought four divisive elections, was a stress test for Israel’s fractious coalition government.
“It changes the timeframe for him,” said Anshel Pfeffer, a columnist at the left-leaning Haaretz daily and 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.”
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 ousting Netanyahu — appears to have bought itself some time. Coalition parties are struggling in the polls and none is likely to want to topple the government and trigger new elections, for now.
Netanyahu’s best hope is that the coalition, made up of eight ideologically diverse parties, implodes over 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 bolt.
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.
Addressing parliament on Wednesday, ahead of the budget vote, Netanyahu vowed to carry on.
“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,” 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 travelled 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.
Netanyahu is on trial for fraud, breach of trust and bribery, charges he denies but which clouded his last years in office. 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.
Israel’s 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.”