On February 28th, Israel’s Attorney General, Avichai Mandelblit, announced the intention on the part of the state to indict sitting Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust in connection to three separate cases known as Case 1000, 2000 and 4000, respectively.
Those cases have been investigated across two and a half years with the accusations involving Netanyahu receiving expensive gifts from two business people in exchange for help with a U.S. visa and tax breaks, as well as exerting influence in order to obtain favourable media coverage.
The dramatic nature of the announcement was somewhat mitigated by just how expected and anticipated this development had become. Nevertheless, and especially in combination with the elections set for April 9th, it does represent an unparalleled challenge to the future of Bibi, as he is known.
In Israel, being Prime Minister allows Mr. Netanyahu special treatment in a criminal investigation and rather than now going straight to an indictment and trial, Netanyahu will have the right to a hearing with the Attorney General before a final decision is taken and legal proceedings move forward.
That could take several more months or even longer, partly depending on whether Netanyahu is still the resident of the Prime Minister’s office or a private citizen after elections. This episode has also followed from a series of investigations and even convictions of high-profile Israeli politicians – both former Prime Minister Olmert and former President Katsav have served jail terms among others.
The Bibi case however feels different. Mr. Netanyahu has been a dominant figure on the Israeli political scene in perhaps unparalleled ways, and were he to stay in office, he would this summer become the longest serving prime minister ever (overtaking founding leader David Ben-Gurion). Rather than succumbing to this investigation, both he and his political allies have fought back and been willing to bring down the entire edifice of the Israeli judicial system. That all of his political allies have stuck with him is new for Israeli politics.
The announcement of the Attorney General comes amidst an already tricky political environment for Benjamin Netanyahu with an election campaign in which he faces a challenge of political forces that have come together form the centre and the ex-military.
Already before the announcement, this anti-Bibi political formation, known as the Blue and White Party and headed by former IDF Chief of Staff Benny Gantz, was pulling ahead of Netanyahu’s Likud party in public opinion polls. ‘Blue and White’ represents a combination of actors new to Israeli politics, primarily Gantz himself, along with the already existing centrist party of Yair Lapid (he was formerly Netanyahu’s Finance Minister) and a very small breakaway faction from the Likud headed by a former Defence Minister (also under Netanyahu), Moshe "Bogie" Ya'alon, and former personal aids of Netanyahu.
Blue and White contains no less than three former chiefs of staff of the Israel Defence Forces (IDF) and it is hard to really consider it as a coherent political party – having no real platform or political DNA, it is best understood as an anti-Netanyahu platform – mostly based on opposition to his style of one-man autocratic-leaning politics rather than opposition to his policies.
The impact of the Attorney General’s announcement on that election environment is not entirely predictable. Given the length of the investigation and the extent of the coverage over years, the indictment may already be discounted in voter’s minds and baked into voter behaviour. Some commentators have speculated that it would only increase Netanyahu’s ability to depict himself as being unfairly hounded by a leftist establishment and media and will work in his favour. However, the first round of polls after the Attorney General’s announcement show a slight if further weakening in Netanyahu’s position and slight additional increases for the Blue and White party.
The election anyway may end up being decided more by what happens to a cluster of small parties in both Netanyahu’s camp and in the opposition camp, as much as it will be decided in the direct race between Likud and Blue and White.
The nature of the contemporary Israeli political system is such that government is always by coalition and to create a governing coalition several parties tend to be needed, including parties with only a few seats in the 120 member Parliament. The threshold to enter the Knesset is four seats (or 3.25% of the vote), and this election may be won or lost by virtue of how many of Netanyahu’s allied parties versus opposition parties cross that threshold or fail to do so.
The election and indictment paradoxically come at a time when Netanyahu might be considered to be at his peak. He is finally cohabiting with a Republican administration in the U.S., and not just any administration but a Trump White House that shares Netanyahu’s hard-line right-wing policies and is very much a political support actor and bedfellow for Netanyahu’s Israel.
It also comes at a time when not only is the Israeli economy still doing well but during which Netanyahu has expanded Israel’s regional and international relations and has managed to a significant degree to marginalize the Palestinian issue – something the Palestinians themselves have contributed to by their ongoing division and absence of a strategy (the recent Moscow meeting of the Palestinian factions tried to but could not yet overcome those divisions).
Whether this sense of success for Netanyahu is anything more than shallow and ephemeral is certainly open to question – the Palestinians are still physically on the ground and a new Palestinian strategy and struggle could pose even greater challenges to an Israel that has perhaps made the two-state option irreversibly difficult to reach. Likewise, in the region, Israel is mostly allied with the losing side and Israel’s adversaries have notched up a number of successes.
The mood in Israel suggests that this is a moment of truth for Netanyahu – whether in the very short term in the election against Gantz or in the more immediate term with a likely indictment and trial facing him, and there is also the simple factor of fatigue with Netanyahu after so long in office.
While an alternative set of policies are not really a central part of this election campaign – the Gantz party has aligned with Netanyahu on Iran and the region and set unreasonable, in fact, impossible terms for any future arrangements with the Palestinians – much is nonetheless at stake, possibly including Bibi’s own personal freedom.
Israel will inevitably pass through a period of much greater political fluidity and uncertainty if (when) Netanyahu departs the stage and his personal relations with world leaders will not be so easily replicated, eventually core regional policies may even be re-visited. However, if Netanyahu does stay in power, he may be more unpredictable and risk averse than in the past, a potentially dangerous combination.