AMAC Exclusive – By Barry Casselman
Preoccupied with news from Ukraine, the U.S. media has mostly ignored a developing story in Israel where a member of its parliament, the Knesset, suddenly left the majority coalition last week to join the opposition.
The defection is significant because the coalition which currently governs the Jewish state had only a one-seat majority. The resulting tie in the Knesset means that should one more member defect from the coalition, a parliamentary vote of no confidence would occur, and there would be an immediate new national election. Three polls taken after the defection indicate that former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud Party has now made a comeback with voters and would win 35-38 seats (up from their current 30 seats). Along with Likud’s three religious party allies, the coalition would be close to a 61-seat majority if the conservative party (which allied with them previously) rejoined them in a new government.
Mr. Netanyahu is still the leader of Likud, which is the largest party in the Knesset. Although he remains a controversial figure in and out of his party, he almost certainly would become prime minister again if the Likud coalition won a new election.
Israel’s longest-serving leader, Netanyahu, was defeated last year by a coalition of disaffected conservative, centrist, and socialist parties led by Yair Lapid, who became the foreign minister. Naftali Bennett was named prime minister as part of the coalition negotiations.
The unprecedented left-to-right government, led by Mr. Bennett and composed of 8 political parties, has survived for a year, but with such diverse ideologies and special interests, it was often speculated that it could not last long, especially after Joe Biden took office. Mr. Biden, like fellow Democratic President Barack Obama, was no friend of Mr. Netanyahu and of Israel’s interests vis-à-vis Iran. The new Israeli government said it would, and tried to, “repair” the rift with U.S. Democrats, but President Biden, along with his close advisor and former Secretary of State John Kerry, continues to negotiate a renewal of a discredited agreement with Iran that Israel strongly opposes (as do most Americans).
Recent Democratic administrations’ treatment of Israel – the United States’ oldest and most important ally in the Middle East – and disregard for Israel’s national security interests (namely preventing Iran from developing nuclear weapons) has probably contributed much to the changing political mood in Israel where Netanyahu, in spite of his personal controversies, is evidently perceived as the strongest figure in protecting Israeli security.
Complicating this political environment is Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. While he was prime minister, Mr. Netanyahu developed a working relationship with Mr. Putin regarding Syria, a Russian ally, which Iran has attempted to use as a forward outpost for its attacks on Israel. Prime Minister Netanyahu was successful in obtaining Putin’s o.k. to fly over Syrian air space to destroy movements of Iranian-supplied hostile troops and weaponry. Mr. Bennett has continued this relationship.
The population of Israel also includes a very large number of Ukrainian and Russian Jews who came to Israel over the past century fleeing czarist, Nazi, and Soviet persecutions. Many have relatives who still live in Ukraine (which today has more than 200,000 Jews). The “hero” of Ukraine, its feisty President Volodymyr Zelensky, is himself Jewish and the grandson of a Holocaust survivor. Most Israelis sympathize with Ukraine.
The bulk of the U.S. and Israeli media do not like Mr. Netanyahu (primarily because he is a free-market conservative). “Bibi’s” trial for alleged corruption drags on and on. Likud’s recent rise in the public opinion polls might not last. The current Israeli government, now in political limbo, is still in charge. Results of another election, if there is one, are months ahead.
But “Bibi” Netanyahu, only a few months removed from when he was consigned to a political wastebasket, suddenly and again looms large over the nation, which gave the world so much biblical drama long ago.