Left collapse and emergence of new allies opens path for Netanyahu’s unlikely re-election in Israel

‘While he will probably survive the vote, he is unlikely to survive the indictment’

Bel Trew
Sunday 27 January 2019 15:20
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What does it take to topple Benjamin Netanyahu from his throne? This is the question on the tips of tongues in Israel over the last few weeks as the legal cases around the Israeli prime minister progressively mount up – and the deadline to submit party lists for the impending elections has drawn nearer.

The right-wing leader will, come mid-July, be the longest serving prime minister in Israel’s history and if the attorney general recommends he be indicted, also the first Israeli premier to face trial while still in the job.

Israel is no stranger to holding its leaders to account. Every one of the last four premiers have been investigated or indicted on corruption charges by an energetic judiciary. But none while they have held office.

The powerful and popular leader has had taken a battering over the last few months. And it appears to be showing, judging by a series of poorly gauged social media outbursts, including an Instagram story bizarrely comparing the corruption charges against him to an eggless omelette and TV sitcom Friends.

Netanuyahu called the snap elections, which are due on 9 April, seven months early. It was tough to govern the country with a knife-edge, one-seat majority after his boisterous defence minister and coalition partner Avigdor Liberman quit in November over Bibi’s refusal to go to war with Gaza, taking his party’s five seats with him.

But despite all this, and even if he is indicted for corruption before the vote, Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud Party is still expected to collect more of the Knesset’s 120 seats than any other party and so maintain the country’s trajectory towards an increasingly right-wing populist agenda.

The long-expected announcement by the attorney general Avichai Mandelblit to send Netanyahu to trial would see the Likud lose just four seats, according to the latest poll published by Israel’s Army Radio.

That would leave him with 25 seats, which is still nearly double the two parties who would come in after him: the centrist Yesh Atid and the newly formed Israel Resilience party.

Mandelblit is expected to make his decision public in a matter of weeks – before the February deadline for submitting party lists.

According to leaks within Israeli media, the state prosecutor is likely to recommend Netanyahu be indicted in case 4000 or “Bezeq” as it is known, named after a telecommunication company he supposedly awarded regulatory favours to. He may also face trial in the other two cases, in which police have argued that he received expensive gifts from wealthy friends, and in which he allegedly negotiated a deal with the Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper for better coverage.

Mr Netanyahu has vehemently rejected the allegations and lashed out at the attorney general, saying he is the victim of a witch hunt.

Although securing just 25 seats does make it a lot harder to form that 61 seat majority needed to hold onto the parliament, Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported on Friday that almost all of the parties in Netanyahu’s present ruling coalition would be willing to join a new government headed by him whatever the outcome of the indictment.

The combined seats of the loyal coalition partners, as the polls currently suggest, are not quite enough to nudge past the finish line but there was also speculation that Israel’s ex-army chief Benny Gantz, the elections wild card, might be willing to team up.

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This month the blue-eyed former paratrooper, who led the Israeli army into Gaza during the 2014 war, has soared to a close second in popularity to Netanyahu in the polls, despite only creating his Israeli Resilience party in late December and keeping a near total silence on his policies.

On Thursday he indicated he may well be willing to join a government led by Netanyahu adding he does “not rule out anyone”.

His party’s 13 seats, as predicted in the Army Radio polls, could be the tipping point for Netanyahu pushing him into thin majority. People within Gantz’s campaign kept tight lipped about alliances and coalition when asked but admitted they were thrilled by the latest polls. He is expected to announce his decision on Tuesday in a huge rally in Tel Aviv.

Even without Gantz, experts who have followed the meteoric rise of Bibi say despite everything he is likely to win largely because there isn’t an alternative.

Anshel Pfeffer, an expert on Netanyahu and author of Bibi: The Turbulent Life and Times of Benjamin Netanyahu, argued that the left in Israel has so completely lost their way, the only true difference to the right is their lack of support for the current prime minister.

The left appeared to spontaneously combust earlier this month when Labor Party leader Avi Gabbay broke up the Zionist Union – an alliance between his and Tzipi Livni’s Hatnuah party.

And prior to the announcement, the Zionist Union, which won 24 seats in the last election and had given Netanyahu’s Likud a run for its money, had already tanked to as low as nine seats in the polls. Bibi appears to be only game in town.

“The fate of one man will dominate this election – and that is Netanyahu,” Pfeffer said. “But while he will probably survive the election, he is unlikely to survive the indictment.”

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