JERUSALEM — News of the collapse of the Israeli government was barely an hour old, but Benjamin Netanyahu, the opposition leader and former prime minister, had already declared he would return to power.
“My friends and I will form a national government,” Netanyahu said in a video hastily posted online Monday night, before Prime Minister Naftali Bennett even delivered a formal resignation speech.
“A government that will take care of you, all citizens of Israel, without exception,” Netanyahu added.
His statement was premature. A new election, Israel’s fifth in less than four years, will not take place until the fall and could end with neither bloc gaining a majority. Parliament has not yet been dissolved, and most likely will not be dissolved until next Monday.
And as a farewell before an election campaign, lawmakers could pass a law barring criminal defendants from becoming prime ministers. That could affect Netanyahu, who is in the midst of a year-long corruption trial.
However, the prospect of Netanyahu returning to office now is stronger than at any time since he left last June.
Netanyahu, Israel’s longest-serving prime minister, now has the opportunity to add to his previous 15 years in power, a term in which he shaped contemporary Israeli discourse and priorities more than any other figure. During his previous terms, he pushed Israeli society to the right, fueled popular distrust of the judiciary and the media, and accelerated acceptance of Israel in the Middle East while overseeing the collapse of Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations. .
Like supporters of Donald J. Trump, Netanyahu’s base did not abandon him even after he lost power.
In a new election, polls suggest, Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud party would easily win more seats than any other. His broader alliance of right-wing and religious parties, albeit without an overall majority, would remain the largest in Parliament. And some right-wing lawmakers who refused to return him to power last year could change their minds in the fall and give him control of parliament.
To his supporters, that would herald the return of a strong right-wing government to Israel, after a turbulent year in which the country has been run by a fragile coalition of eight ideologically incompatible parties, including Jewish and Arab lawmakers, who were united only for his opposition to Mr. Netanyahu himself.
However, for his detractors, the prospect of his return is worrying. A new Netanyahu government will most likely depend on the support of a far-right party that could demand control of the ministry that oversees the police force in return for its loyalty.
Mr. Netanyahu’s own party has spent the last year undermining the concept of Arab-Jewish partnership, hinting at sweeping changes to the judicial system and even vowing at times to take revenge on his political opponents.
Netanyahu himself has denied that he would use a return to government to disrupt his trial, implying that he would be happy to stand trial, a process expected to take several more years, while he rules the country.
But a Likud lawmaker and Netanyahu loyalist, Shlomo Karhi, said earlier this year that he would work to replace the attorney general, the top government official overseeing Netanyahu’s prosecution. And another lawmaker and former Likud minister, David Amsalem, said earlier this month that “anyone who does not intend to change our sick and biased judicial system first and foremost has nothing to look for in Likud.”
“Once we break the bones of the left, we’ll explain to them that we know how to run this country a little better,” Amsalem said in another radio interview this month.
For Netanyahu biographer Ben Caspit, this kind of rhetoric raises concerns about the prospect of a new Netanyahu-led government. “Israeli democracy would really be in danger,” said Caspit, a political commentator.
“The only thing that interests him is to stop his trial,” he said.
Some allies of Netanyahu dismiss this talk as scaremongering.
“False predictions,” said Tzachi Hanegbi, a veteran Likud lawmaker and former minister. “You can’t blame Netanyahu for the security or the economy,” Hanegbi said. “So what can you talk about?”
Meanwhile, for some leftists and many Palestinians, a new Netanyahu government would not be much worse than the current one.
Prime Minister Bennett has a unifying style and has formed a governing alliance with an independent Arab party for the first time in Israel’s history. But on many fundamental issues, he agrees with Netanyahu. A former settler leader, Mr. Bennett opposes a Palestinian state, maintained a blockade on the Gaza Strip and approved the construction of thousands of new settlement units in the occupied West Bank.
Ultimately, Bennett said, he decided to topple his own government to prevent the collapse of a two-tier legal system in the West Bank that distinguishes between Israeli settlers and Palestinians. Some compare it to apartheid.
Ghassan Khatib, a Palestinian political analyst and former Palestinian minister, said: “The current government may be different in certain views and positions, but in practice it was not different at all.”
“They had the same political attitude: no to a Palestinian state, no to negotiations,” he said. “And they continued to expand the settlements as fast as they could.”
Understanding the collapse of the government of Israel
The current and previous governments also had similar approaches to the broader Middle East. Both sought to build new diplomatic ties with Arab countries that had long isolated Israel, and both opposed US-led efforts to ease sanctions on Iran if Iranian officials agreed to moderate its nuclear enrichment program.
But for many Israelis, there is a clear difference between a right-wing government led by Netanyahu and the current diverse coalition led by Bennett and his centrist partner, Yair Lapid, who will become interim prime minister during the election campaign.
Despite coming from opposing political camps, Bennett and Lapid built a partnership based on compromise and civility, which supporters saw as a stark contrast to Likud’s bullish split.
During their speeches on Monday announcing the fall of the government, the two men showed respect, affection and admiration for each other, even as they ended their joint project. “I really love you,” Lapid told Bennett during an unscripted moment.
In practical terms, his government also got Israel moving again after a period of paralysis under Netanyahu, who lacked a large enough parliamentary majority during his last two years in power to fulfill certain basic government functions.
Mr. Bennett’s administration passed Israel’s first national budget in more than three years; he tried to reduce food costs by eliminating tariffs on food imports; began to liberalize the regulation of kosher food; and filled several key vacancies in the upper echelons of the civil service that had been left empty under Netanyahu.
The Bennett government presided over one of the quietest periods in Gaza in several years, encouraging militants there to restrict rocket fire into southern Israel by offering thousands of new work permits to Gaza residents.
The administration has also improved relations with the Biden administration, although it still opposes some administration goals, such as the nuclear deal with Iran or the reopening of a US consulate in Jerusalem for Palestinians.
Mr. Netanyahu is not a favorite for the next prime minister, any more than he was in four elections from 2019 to 2021. Each time, he failed to form a majority coalition with other parties or failed to honor commitments to them. when he did
This new election may be no different, said Professor Gideon Rahat, a political scientist at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
“We have been to this film four times and we can get similar results a fifth time,” said Professor Rahat.
Right-wing parties previously reluctant to sit in on a Netanyahu government could go with him this time, but experience has shown that such partnerships do not end well, he added.
“Netanyahu has a credibility problem,” Professor Rahat said. “He can make 1,000 promises, but no one believes him. Netanyahu is not bad at electoral politics, but when it comes to building a coalition, he doesn’t get the credit.”
The report was contributed by Myra Noveck of Jerusalem and Gabby Sobelman of Rehovot, Israel.