BINYAMIN NETANYAHU is Israel’s longest-serving prime minister. He dominates political life. His loyal supporters praise his statesmanship, strength and skill. His critics condemn him for being divisive, domineering and dirty—he is currently on trial for corruption. Politics in Israel comes down to whether you are for or against the man known as Bibi.
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Voters, alas, cannot agree on someone to take his place, so gridlock has prevailed. Three elections in 2019 and 2020 failed to produce a stable government. A fourth, on March 23rd, seems to have ended in yet another stalemate. Several formidable rivals are trying to push Mr Netanyahu out. Although his party, Likud, won 30 seats in the 120-member Knesset, Israel’s parliament, fully 13 more than any other party, his desired coalition is nine seats short of a majority. But you should never rule out Bibi. He is stubborn and resourceful and there are still several ways he might hang on to power.
It would be a shame if he did. Most Israelis want to see Mr Netanyahu go. A majority in the Knesset at least say they do, too. They range from doves to hawks, Arab Israelis to Jewish nationalists. At the moment they refuse to work together. Party leaders such as Yair Lapid, Benny Gantz, Gideon Sa’ar and Naftali Bennett all feel they should be the next prime minister. Each has flaws, but any would be better than Mr Netanyahu in the short term. It is time they set aside their egos, formed a new government and brought some fresh air into the stale fug that is Israeli politics.
Give Mr Netanyahu credit: he has led a successful vaccination drive and forged closer ties with Arab states with the Abraham accords. Before the pandemic, he oversaw a flourishing economy. He is a remarkable politician and a deft diplomat. But in his determination to hold onto power come what may, he is damaging the democracy that makes Israel stand out in a region full of autocrats. The prime minister smears institutions, such as the police and the courts, in order to discredit the corruption case against him. Desperate to gain an electoral advantage, he has stooped to making common cause with Jewish supremacists.
An anti-Bibi government would have plenty of drawbacks. It is unlikely, for example, to make progress with the Palestinians, who are due to hold their own elections this year. With many rival egos and philosophies, it would be unstable and probably short-lived. That has led some lawmakers to propose an alternative which does not require forming a government: to shut out Mr Netanyahu by closing the loophole that allows a person under indictment to become prime minister.
In its favour, however, an anti-Bibi government can help kick-start the economy as the pandemic recedes by passing a new budget. The country has gone without one for over two years because of the gridlock, and only a government can get this done. What is more, an anti-Bibi coalition has many paths to power. Mr Bennett, for example, has been trying to steal the support of Mr Netanyahu’s ultra-Orthodox allies. The best solution would involve the Arab parties, which have never been invited into a coalition, nor shown much inclination to join one. Breaking that taboo—even if only by gaining their support from outside the government—would make it easier to form coalitions in the future and give Arab-Israelis, who make up a fifth of the population, a greater say in the country’s affairs.
Even Mr Netanyahu, who once portrayed Arab parties as fifth columnists, has flirted with one of them, but his far-right allies object. Mr Sa’ar and Mr Bennett are equally reluctant, so forming an anti-Bibi government will be tricky. But talks have only just begun. There is time yet for Israeli politics to break the mould. ■
This article appeared in the Leaders section of the print edition under the headline “Breaking the stalemate”