Netanyahu won’t leave quietly


Indictment or no indictment, it will not be easy for Benjamin Netanyahu to be ousted as Israel’s prime minister, even after police recently recommended indicting him and his wife for fraud, bribery and breach of trust. His own Likud Party is with him, the other parties in the ruling coalition seem to support him and according to the polls, despite the scandals, he would win elections next year.

Netanyahu remains popular even after being accused of accepting expensive gifts from friends, involvement in a deal for better press coverage in a newspaper by undercutting its competitor, and awarding special treatment to a telecommunications magnate in return for more than positive coverage for him and his wife on the magnate’s popular online news site.

Netanyahu has had a rough 2018. The world condemned the Israeli army’s shoot-to-kill orders at the border fence with Gaza where military snipers killed more than 225 largely peaceful Palestinian protesters. Lately, an Israeli commander, part of a commando team on a top-secret mission in the Gaza Strip, was killed. Then, Netanyahu survived a mutiny attempt in the Knesset after his defense minister quit to protest against his decision to agree to a truce with Hamas. Netanyahu can only be considered lucky that Naftali Bennett, the hardline education minister, did not quit as well, for if he had, Netanyahu would have lost his one-seat majority which would have triggered early polls.

So in the midst of so many problems, how does Netanyahu maintain such wide popular support? For one, he stands unchallenged in his own party, and faces a weak field of contenders. The general public and even his bitter enemies concede that Israel is more prosperous than it was when he came to power. Israel is enjoying a 3.3 percent annual growth rate.

Netanyahu’s go-to mantra has always been security, and it always works. Just this week, Operation Northern Shield, which is targeting illegal tunnels along the Israel-Lebanon border, was apparently a way for Netanyahu to distract the public from the latest corruption allegations.

Netanyahu also claims, and his supporters believe, that the criminal investigations, which began a year and a half ago, are a witch hunt and that he is being persecuted by leftists in the government and media.

However, Netanyahu, a four-term prime minister, is not unaffected by the investigations. His government is unlikely to last to the end of its term in November 2019 when he must call for elections. Israel’s political system often produces unstable coalition cabinets, meaning polls are many times held before full terms have been served. Netanyahu’s cabinet, while stable for now, is a prime candidate for collapse. Yet polls show Netanyahu would still win the next election.

And even if Netanyahu is indicted, the ensuing legal battle could go on for years. When former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert resigned in 2008 over multiple corruption charges, it took six years until he landed behind bars.

For now, Netanyahu’s fate is in the hands of the Attorney-General Avichai Mandelblit who will make the decision whether to indict. Mandelblit will review the findings of the police investigation, present an initial charge sheet against the prime minister in early 2019, then hold lengthy hearings for all suspects before reaching a decision.

If Netanyahu remains in power after July he will surpass Israel’s founding father, David Ben-Gurion, as its longest serving premier; he might get that far. Under Israeli law, Netanyahu does not have to resign until he is convicted and that conviction is upheld through the appeals process. But the law is unclear on whether an indicted prime minister can remain in office. What a spectacle it promises to be if Netanyahu continues to run the country after being indicted. But knowing Netanyahu, it is a trick he could probably pull off. There is, after all, a reason Netanyahu is known as The Magician.