On Sunday, the anniversary of that first win in 1996, Netanyahu addressed the country as he faced the possibility of the end of his political career after his former lieutenant, Naftali Bennett, announced he would work with opposition leader Yair Lapid to form a new government.
Blasting Bennett, leader of the small right-wing party Yamina, for committing what he called the “fraud of the century,” Netanyahu portrayed him as a power hungry politician who “only cares about himself.” It was a statement that some Israeli political watchers found to be more than ironic considering Netanyahu’s past political maneuvers.
The announcement came after Bennett had already once announced he was working with Lapid, only to backtrack two days into Israel’s latest conflict with Hamas-led militants in Gaza. But a few days after the ceasefire was announced, Bennett was back at the negotiating table with Lapid.
Bennett and Lapid, who heads the centrist party Yesh Atid, will try to form a coalition with at least eight political parties that run the political spectrum; from the left wing Meretz, to Bennett’s right wing Yamina party. They will also likely need the outside support of a small Islamist party called United Arab List in order to be able to have a governing majority in Israel’s parliament, the Knesset.
The new coalition will not see eye-to-eye on many of the most pressing issues facing Israel, especially on Israeli relations with Palestinians. But in his speech Sunday, Bennett said he’s willing to sit with parties with opposing ideological views as his in order to prevent Israel from going through a fifth round of elections in just over two years.
It is widely believed that as part of the deal, Bennett will serve first as prime minister, followed by Lapid.
Now Lapid needs to formally sign coalition agreements with the various parties before presenting his new government to Israeli President Reuven Rivlin. Then the Knesset needs to vote and approve the new government before it can be formally sworn in.
Beyond losing his role as leader of Israel’s government, Netanyahu faces perhaps an even greater threat if the new government is sworn in: an ongoing trial on charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust.
Netanyahu has denied all the charges, describing them as a media-fueled witch hunt against him. He insists he wants the case to run its course, confident it will crumble.
But political analysts say that by staying in power, Netanyahu could avoid prosecution and possible jail time by appointing a new attorney general, or by influencing the appointment of certain judges who could affect his trial. Other critics of the Israeli leader say he wants to pass a new immunity law that would protect a sitting prime minister from being indicted.
While it appears that Bennett and Lapid have enough support to be able to form a new government and oust Netanyahu after 12 consecutive years in power, their new government is still several steps away.
And if Israeli political history is a guide, things can change quickly and dramatically. The new government is sitting on a thin margin, just a few defections could topple their chances. A collapse of the ceasefire with Hamas-led militants in Gaza, or a terrorist attack could also completely change the calculations.
As The Times of Israel’s editor David Horovitz observed on the news outlet’s podcast on Sunday, Netanyahu has been written off so many times before, only to survive.
“The time to say it’s for real will only be when that vote is cast and the votes have been counted and Netanyahu is no longer leading the coalition,” Horovitz said. “We’re not there yet, we’re apparently very close to it but we’re not there yet.”
A quarter of a century ago, Israelis were stunned when Benjamin Netanyahu narrowly beat Shimon Peres to become Israel’s youngest-ever Prime Minister.