Benjamin Netanyahu is vying to regain control of Israeli politics Tuesday even as he faces trial.
In this Oct. 20, 2022, file photo, a man walks behind a Likud party election campaign banner depicting its leader, former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in Tel Aviv, Israel. Credit: Oded Balilty / AP

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Israeli voters are indefatigable. The election on Nov. 1 will be the fifth in just three-and-a-half years, and yet the turnout is still likely to be around 70 percent. That’s especially remarkable because all five elections have really been about the same question: Should Binyamin “Bibi” Netanyahu go to jail or should he be prime minister?

He is on trial for bribery, fraud and breach of trust, the evidence against him is strong, and his peril is real. The court system is one of the few aspects of Israeli public life that have not been politicized: Former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert was sentenced to six years in jail (reduced to 18 months on appeal) on exactly the same charges Netanyahu now faces.

Netanyahu has benefitted from being a right-wing populist and ultra-nationalist at a time when that flavor is enjoying considerable success in politics (Trump, Bolsonaro, Orban, Meloni, Modi, etc.). But it’s still remarkable that one man can make his fate the core political issue for a country of 10 million people.

Political attempts to bring down various coalitions led by his Likud Party began even before he was formally indicted in late 2019, and he barely squeaked a victory in each of the first three elections. After 12 consecutive years in power, he lost the fourth election in 2021 by an equally narrow margin, and is currently in opposition.

But Netanyahu is trying hard to make it back into office next month — and this time he might be able to form a coalition that would end his legal worries. The Religious Zionist Party is relatively new on the scene, but it is already the country’s third biggest party.

If a band of criminals managed to gain political power, you would expect them to decriminalize crime. If the Religious Zionist Party joins a victorious Likud-led coalition, its proposed “Law and Justice” plan would take power from the courts and give it to the politicians instead — and most particularly, it would annul the current law against fraud and breach of trust.

The leading figures in the Religious Zionist Party, Bezalel Smotrich and Itamar Ben-Gvir, were once beyond the pale in Israeli politics.

Ben-Gvir famously admires Israeli terrorist Baruch Goldstein, who murdered 29 Palestinians and wounded 125 others in Hebron in 1994. Smotrich says “Israel should be run according to Torah law” — a theocracy like Iran, in other words. But Israeli politics has now moved far enough right to include even them: 62 percent of Israelis now identify as right-wing.

Netanyahu is not a religious fanatic himself, but Smotrich’s “legal reforms” would quash Netanyahu’s indictment, so he would have no reservations about giving the Religious Zionist Party senior cabinet posts if the right-wing parties get enough seats in this election to form a government.

Will they? Impossible to say, really. The magic number is 61 (out of 120 seats in the Knesset), and the right-wing, pro-Netanyahu parties consistently come up with only 59 or 60 seats in the polls. The Jewish parties in the current coalition get 56, and the four parties representing Israel’s Arab citizens get four seats (or possibly none at all, if they cannot unite).

Like the previous four elections, this one is likely to end up as a cliffhanger. It may not even be the last in the series, for most Israelis are just voting the same way every time. Meanwhile, however, the real world around them is going to hell.

The 3 million Palestinian Arabs in the occupied West Bank are near the breaking point. The Palestinian Authority, Israel’s instrument for controlling the occupied territories, has lost all authority. The Palestinian Authority’s unelected leader, 86-year-old Mahmoud Abbas, is in poor health and has no deputy or designated successor.

The cities of Jenin and Nablus in the northern West Bank are already effectively beyond Israeli or Palestinian Authority control. The young and heavily armed militants of the Lion’s Den militia dominate the streets except when the Israeli army goes in shooting, and a third full-scale intifada may be just weeks away.

Yet Israeli voters, permanently distracted by the Netanyahu melodrama, seem largely unaware of what is heading their way.

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Gwynne Dyer, Opinion columnist

Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist whose commentary is published in 45 countries.