Israeli Prime Minister Bennett announces retirement from politics, paving the way for Netanyahu’s return

Bennett’s statement to stand down, at least for now, comes just over a week after he informed the public that he could no longer hold together his fragile coalition, sending the country to the polls for the fifth time in less than four years. An election is likely to take place in late October or early November.

A poll taken by Israeli TV’s Channel 12 News immediately following Bennett’s announcement on Wednesday showed Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud party gaining at least 15 seats more than its closest rival and gaining enough support from other right-wing factions and those loyal to the former leader to form a government with a small majority.

In a brief televised statement from Israel’s parliament, the Knesset, Bennett said, “I do not intend to compete in the coming elections but will remain a loyal soldier in the service of this country.”

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Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, and Defense Minister Naftali Bennett, visit an Israeli army base in the Golan Heights, on the Israeli-Syrian border, Sunday, Nov. 24, 2019.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, and Defense Minister Naftali Bennett, visit an Israeli army base in the Golan Heights, on the Israeli-Syrian border, Sunday, Nov. 24, 2019. (Atef Safadi/Pool via AP)

“The state of Israel is the love of my life,” said Bennett, who entered into office a year ago heading a broad government coalition made up of eight parties spanning the political spectrum and including for the first time an Arab-Israeli party. Ultimately, it was the clash of ideologies that brought Bennett’s coalition to an end last week. 

Israel’s parliament is expected to be dissolved on Thursday and be replaced with a caretaker government led by Bennett’s coalition partner, Yair Lapid, who will run the country through what is expected to be a fraught four-month election period

Lapid, a former journalist and media personality, stands apart from other Israeli prime ministers as he does not have a strong military background and did not graduate from high school. Unlike other Israeli prime ministers, Lapid served as a correspondent for an army magazine during his compulsory military service before becoming a newspaper reporter and eventually a regular face on Israeli TV screens, including hosting the nightly news. 

Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, right, and Foreign Minister Yair Lapid attend a cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister's office in Jerusalem, June 19, 2022. 

Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, right, and Foreign Minister Yair Lapid attend a cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister’s office in Jerusalem, June 19, 2022.  (Abir Sultan/Pool Photo via AP, File)

However, being in the top office as Israelis head to the polls will put Lapid, who for the past year has served as Foreign Minister and Alternate Prime Minister, in a prime position to showcase his political skills and go head-to-head with his main rival, Netanyahu. 

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As interim prime minister, Lapid will be the one to meet with President Joe Biden when he makes his first visit as president to Israel next month and might also be the one to work with the White House as it encourages normalization between Israel and Saudi Arabia, which the president also intends to visit during his Middle East trip. 

Biden is also expected to meet with Netanyahu, who formally heads the opposition in Israel’s parliament. The two leaders have a long but temperamental relationship. When Biden visited Israel as vice president in 2010, while Netanyahu was prime minister, an announcement of new settlements in East Jerusalem created a crisis between the two leaders.

Since 2019, Israeli leaders, including Netanyahu, have struggled to form a stable coalition government because of the fragmented nature of the country’s parliamentary system, which allows a host of small parties and requires that the government controls a majority of the seats. Bennett struggled over the past three months to keep his coalition together after members of his own faction quit over ideological differences. 

FILE PHOTO: U.S. Vice President Joe Biden (L) shakes hands with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as they deliver joint statements during their meeting in Jerusalem March 9, 2016. REUTERS/Debbie Hill/Pool/File Photo

FILE PHOTO: U.S. Vice President Joe Biden (L) shakes hands with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as they deliver joint statements during their meeting in Jerusalem March 9, 2016. REUTERS/Debbie Hill/Pool/File Photo (REUTERS/Debbie Hill)

Pundits said that Bennett’s decision to stand out this election will most likely work in Netanyahu’s favor. 

“We have already seen by the polls just published that Bennett’s withdrawal paves the way for Netanyahu,” Aviv Bushinsky, former media advisor and chief of staff for former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, told Fox News Digital.

The Channel 12 poll shows Netanyahu’s Likud party receiving some 35 seats in Israel’s 120-seat parliament if elections were held today. While 35 is not enough alone to form a government, the culmination of four or five other parties that have remained loyal to Netanyahu, who served as prime minister for a combined total of 15 years, will allow him to form a coalition. 

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“Bennett said he was going to take time out from politics, but it’s clear that he was pushed to it, and it is not something he really wants to do,” Bushinsky added. “He will, however, stay in his position until the government dissolves in order to prevent Netanyahu from forming a government in the current parliament.” 

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