Netanyahu pitches himself as antidote to Israel’s coalition chaos as he plots return to power
Yitzhak Shimon is in a good mood. As the Jerusalem fruit seller bags up some cherries in Mahane Yehuda market, he is virtually glowing about the prospect of a comeback for his political idol.
“Benjamin Netanyahu is the number one leader in the world,” enthuses the 62-year-old. “Ten years ago Israel was so small, now the world is looking at us – flirting with us – because of him. I hope he will take control.”
As Israel heads for its fifth election in just three years, following the collapse this week of its fragile coalition government, all eyes are fixed on the Jewish state’s most controversial living leader.
After a year in the wilderness as opposition leader, former Prime Minister Mr Netanyahu is styling himself as the antidote to coalition compromise and chaos. He is, he claims, the only man who can destroy the so-called anti-Bibi alliance and install a stable Right-wing government.
“Something big has happened here today. People are smiling tonight because they feel we are getting rid of the worst government in the history of Israel,” said the former premier in a buoyant speech earlier this week, after the government collapsed.
“This is a government that succumbed to terrorism, to blackmail, lost the ability to control the cities of Israel. The country has been yanked from under our feet by this government. There is a sense of loss of personal security – something that bothers everyone.”
To his supporters, like the fruit merchants of Mahane Yehuda, the man known as “King Bibi” is the answer to a year of political infighting and unpopular compromises under Naftali Bennett, the head of the coalition.
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After coming to power in June, Mr Bennett secured a wafer-thin majority by putting an Arab political party in government for the first time in the Jewish state’s history. He also won over Left-wingers and centrists, despite being the leader of the hard-Right Yamina party – and to some, a “Mini Me” imitation of Mr Netanyahu himself.
This led to public spats, and resignations, from senior members of the coalition and the failure to pass key legislation, which prompted Mr Bennett to dissolve the coalition and announce his own departure. He is due to be replaced next week by the centrist leader Yair Lapid, who will serve as a caretaker prime minister until a new government is formed.
Mr Shimon, the fruit vendor, said Right-wingers were utterly fed up with the compromise-driven, fractured Bennett coalition. “It was like a holiday, a happy holiday for the land, that this government is going away,” he said.
“I’ve stopped even thinking about Bennett,” added Moshe Levy, 58, also a fruit seller and passionate Likud voter at Mahane Yehuda. “There’s no one better who can fix this [political] crisis than Bibi.”
But despite the enthusiasm among Likud supporters, polls suggest that November’s election is just as likely to end in deadlock as the previous four rounds of voting.
Recent polls by three major Israeli broadcasters predict that Likud will once again emerge as the main party, but will fall just short of 61 seats.
This raises the prospect of a lengthy period of coalition building through the winter. And Mr Netanyahu would have to win over the “anti-Bibi” alliance, a group of right-wing parties which have repudiated the former leader’s bombastic, divisive style and alleged corruption.
“He has a chance of making a comeback in two scenarios,” said Dr Dahlia Scheindlin, an Israeli political analyst and pollster. “Either he wins decisively with 61 seats from the parties that support him or a hung election result in which the parties against him don’t have quite enough seats. There’ll be haggling and it could become another mess.”