Israel, Netanyahu plots comeback

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Benjamin Netanyahu has not retired from politics. Far from it. The longest-serving prime minister in Israeli history is contemplating revenge. It is two weeks since Naftali Bennett replaced Benjamin Netanyahu as prime minister of Israel and strangely enough, Israel is still there. Netanyahu asked his aides to continue calling him with the title of Prime Minister.

Unlike the United States where there is an unofficial tradition of continuing to call the country’s former leaders ‘President’ – even after they have left office – Israel has never had such a tradition. His predecessors are simply Katzav, Barak, and Olmert, and since two of them went to jail, keeping the title would have been quite embarrassing.

There are other signs that Netanyahu is planning his return. Netanyahu is eager to make another comeback, and to do so he is de-legitimizing Prime Minister Bennett by making it appear that he is still the real prime minister. That’s why he not only holds onto the title but also maintains, through his social media, a steady stream of images of him greeting local and foreign dignitaries in statesman circles.

At the same time, he was barely seen outside the Knesset and official residence (which is now due to leave on July 10), with the exception of a walk on Bat Yam beach, run with loyal Likud Mayor Tzvika Brot and to the applause of the spectators. He will only venture to places where he can still present himself as prime minister; otherwise, the Israelis may suddenly notice that he no longer has the large security escort and entourage that accompanied him.Few politicians are so aware of the importance of the visual image in creating a political spectacle, and Netanyahu is anxious not to be seen as just another former prime minister, imagine if as common civilian.

Netanyahu would naturally like to lead Likud into another election (it would be his 11th election as party leader, breaking Menachem Begin’s ten records). However, despite his repeated promise over the past two weeks that we will ‘overthrow this dangerous leftist, fraudulent government’, he knows better than anyone how difficult it can be to remove a prime minister who already has his feet under his desk. He takes a constructive vote of no confidence, one in which there is a majority for an alternate prime minister, and he currently has no prospect of such a majority in his favor. In a month, the Knesset will take a two-month holiday, before returning in October for a battle over the new budget.

Assuming the Bennett-Lapid government can win, and that all eight coalition parties are fully invested in getting that budget through so they can present some results to their constituents, its chances of surviving at least until early 2023 will increase dramatically. Netanyahu is unlikely to wait another 16 months of work in opposition to his next chance. Not that he’s giving up on this possibility. He just wants to do other things in the meantime.

As long as he is still a legislator, Netanyahu cannot earn any income other than his parliamentary salary. He can’t even accept invitations to fly overseas to speak without getting permission from a Knesset committee. Think of all the 6-figure salaries, the luxury travel, the overseas vacations paid by billionaire friends, the executive positions, and consulting he is missing out on now when his earning potential is still high. If they approve the budget by November, the temptation will be too great.

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