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Netanyahu struggles to plot path back to power in Israel

On their trip to Israel last month, a group of US lawmakers met the new prime minister Naftali Bennett and drove to Ramallah to meet the Palestinian prime minister, Mohammad Shtayyeh.

But the one person they did not find time for was Benjamin Netanyahu, once the most important person in Israel, and long the high point on a visiting delegation’s itinerary.

The snub hit home and Netanyahu’s allies in his party, Likud, complained that the leader of the opposition was being sidelined. The US delegation never asked to see him, replied foreign minister and alternate prime minister Yair Lapid, the architect of the unwieldy eight-party coalition that replaced Netanyahu’s government with a one-seat majority.

Netanyahu, five-time premier and occasional leader of the opposition, vowed the day he was ousted in mid-June that his exile from power would be shortlived. But, six months later, the man who enjoys a reputation as the Houdini of Israeli politics is struggling to plot a way back to power. His leadership of Likud faces a challenge, as a criminal prosecution for alleged corruption saps his energies and blocks his path back to the head of the rightwing camp.

“As the trial goes on, we are seeing a slow erosion of his prominence in the national discourse,” said Dahlia Scheindlin, a political consultant and pollster who has worked on several Israeli elections.

“We don’t see any real weakening in his base of support, but he hasn’t yet been able to stage a comeback — instead, every day the country is seeing that it can function without him.”

Bennett and his allies have survived longer than many predicted and have succeeded in passing a budget, the country’s first in more than three years, while Netanyahu, the doyen of parliamentary procedures, fumbled his own vote at least once — voting the wrong way after an exhausting debate.

Netanyahu’s next big opportunity to weaken the coalition will come in late 2023, when Bennett is required to hand over the reins to Lapid in the rotating premiership they agreed when they ousted Netanyahu.

Still, those close to him say these are temporary setbacks for Israel’s longest-serving prime minister, a man who has burst back from political exile in the past to return to the premiership.

“Netanyahu is not an astrologer, making predictions on when the real rightwing will be back to take Israel in the right direction,” said a person close to him, who described the ex-premier’s mood in recent interactions as relaxed and optimistic. “The witch-hunt will soon be over — already the people see how there is no evidence at all, only accusations.”

The “witch-hunt” is how Netanyahu has painted his trial for corruption.

He vehemently denies the charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust in two overlapping cases where prosecutors allege he did favours for friends who plied him and his wife with expensive cigars and champagne, and a third case, where they allege he promised a newspaper publisher regulatory favours in return for positive coverage.

Every so often, the 72-year-old defendant, flanked by a phalanx of lawyers and the most loyal of his supporters, makes the drive from his luxury home in Caesarea to the district court in East Jerusalem. These appearances are a glimpse of how much his circumstances have changed. Gone is the motorcade, whisking him away to meetings with visiting foreign dignitaries. On his most recent appearance, perhaps two dozen of his supporters gathered, hurling abuse at journalists and prosecutors.

So far, the testimony is unflattering — last week, one of his aides, now a state witness, described him as a control freak, demanding changes to headlines and stories constantly, and aides destroying their phones when the investigation came to light.

“Being in court is difficult for anyone, but in Netanyahu’s case it is especially rough,” Nahum Barnea, one of Israel’s most prominent political commentators, wrote in a newspaper sketch the next day. “The transition from ‘all-powerful’ to a position of being controlled by others is plainly visible on him — his face conveyed anger, contempt and disdain.”

The outcome of the trial could be explosive — the jailing of one of the most influential men in the Middle East. But with appeals expected to go all the way to the Supreme Court, analysts say a final verdict in the trial is years away. Yet Netanyahu is finding he has little room to forge the next act in his political career and even faces a challenge from within Likud.

Yuli Edelstein, his longtime ally and, most recently, health minister during a blitzkrieg vaccination drive that almost delivered Netanyahu a sixth premiership, is challenging him for leadership of the Likud party. He has few, if any, ideological differences with his one-time mentor. But he says that until the trial is resolved, Netanyahu will not be able to secure enough support to head a coalition.

“There have been great prime ministers all around the world — take Churchill, for instance — who at some stage hit a wall. It’s like in boxing, you have to know when to leave the ring unbeaten,” Edelstein said.

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