Will Israelis Say Bye-Bye to Bibi?

The Israeli leader faces possible corruption charges weeks before a key election.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks in Moscow on Feb. 27. (Mikhail Svetlov/Getty Images)
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks in Moscow on Feb. 27. (Mikhail Svetlov/Getty Images)

Israel’s attorney general made public Thursday his intention to indict Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on a handful of corruption charges, imperiling the Israeli leader’s political future at a time when he faces his most formidable election campaign challenge in more than a decade.

Avichai Mandelblit, a Netanyahu appointee who previously served as his cabinet secretary, released a 60-page charge sheet with allegations of bribe-taking, fraud, and breach of public trust in three separate cases revolving around the prime minister’s dealings with Israeli tycoons.

The charges mark the climax of graft investigations that have dogged the Israeli leader for more than two years. Netanyahu is due a hearing before Mandelblit makes a final decision on the indictment, but the political fallout from the current decision could reshape the final weeks of the campaign, the actual vote, and the coalition haggling after the results emerge. The election is scheduled for April 9.

In the past decade alone, a former Israeli prime minister and former president have served jail sentences  but Netanyahu is the first prime minister to face charges while in office, and the decision plunges Israel’s political system into uncharted waters.

As he seeks re-election to a fifth term in office, Netanyahu and his Likud party are facing former military chief of staff Benny Gantz, whose centrist party Blue and White includes two other former army chiefs and is seeking to appeal to right-wing swing voters.

But Mandelblit’s charges could prove to be the more potent threat to Netanyahu.

The Supreme Court rejected an eleventh-hour legal petition by Likud that sought to prevent the charges from being made public.

Two of the cases involve alleged deals to influence Israel’s news media coverage of the prime minister. In one, dubbed “Case 4000,” Netanyahu is alleged to have engaged in bribe-taking by easing regulations on Israel’s telephone monopoly, Bezeq. In return, the company’s owner, Shaul Elovitch, provided the prime minister favorable coverage in the online portal Walla! News, which he controls. Elovitch was also charged with bribery.

In “Case 2000,” Netanyahu was recorded discussing a deal to get flattering coverage from the publisher of Yedioth Ahronoth, a newspaper controlled by the media baron Arnon Mozes. In return, Netanyahu allegedly offered legislation that would harm the business interests of Yedioth’s chief competitor, Israel Today, a free tabloid known for its deferential treatment of Netanyahu and owned by the American gambling magnate Sheldon Adelson. The deal never came to fruition. Mozes was charged with bribery as well.

“Case 1000” deals with hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of cigars, pink champagne, and jewelry purchased regularly by the Israeli-American movie mogul Arnon Milchan and provided to the Netanyahu family. Milchan was not charged.

Though the Israel police and, reportedly, senior prosecutors believed the prime minister could be charged with bribery in Cases 1000 and 2000, Mandelblit accused Netanyahu of fraud and breach of public trust, charges considered less severe.

For the last two years, Mandelblit, who was appointed by Netanyahu, has served as the Israeli approximation of U.S. special counsel Robert Mueller, who is investigating U.S. President Donald Trump’s potential involvement in Russian meddling in the 2016 election. Mandelblit has faced pressure from opposition politicians and the prime minister, as well as endless media speculation charges.

Netanyahu, who has declared himself innocent of all charges, alleges that the investigation is a conspiracy to overthrow him. In recent weeks he tried to pressure Mandelblit to hold off on the indictment, saying it would be interfere in the election campaign.

Speaking after the indictment, Netanyahu denied the charges and said Mandelblit had caved to political pressure. “The left has gone on a witch hunt to overthrow the rule of the right under my leadership, and to crown Gantz,” he said.

On the other side of the political divide, politicians have alleged that Mandelblit has a conflict of interest because of his role as Netanyahu’s cabinet secretary before being appointed.

Though Netanyahu’s support among his base is seen as robust, the indictment could prompt a change in voting that would result in a handful of parliamentary seats to shift from Likud to Gantz’s party—or to other right-wing parties that could eventually join a government led by Gantz. There’s also the possibility that the charges would encourage politicians in Likud itself to nudge Netanyahu aside should the party perform poorly in the election.

“Nobody knows how this is going to affect the campaign. This has never happened in Israel’s history,” said Tal Shalev, a political correspondent for the Israeli website Walla! News before the announcement. “The conventional wisdom about Mandelblit’s indictment is that it’s a D-Day—and the whole election will restart after it.”

In the final months leading up to the decision, election polls have consistently pegged Netanyahu’s Likud party as the largest party, with around 30 of the parliament’s 120 seats, suggesting that his support among Israeli right-wing voters remains resilient. Though Gantz’s party vaulted into the lead through a merger with another centrist party, polls still suggest that a coalition of right-wing and religious parties similar to Netanyahu’s current coalition would control a majority in parliament.

But, in an indication of how Netanyahu might be imperiled by legal charges, a poll released on the eve of the indictment by the Times of Israel suggested that the decision by the attorney general would knock four seats off the Likud tally and boost the rival Blue and White party—potentially shifting the balance of power in parliament.

The key political calculus, analysts say, is whether the indictment shakes loose parliamentary mandates of moderate swing voters from Likud and they then migrate, either to right -ing parties that might sit in a coalition with Gantz or to the Blue and White party itself. According to the Times of Israel poll, 28 percent of Likud voters said they wouldn’t vote for the party in the event of an indictment recommendation.

“An indictment opens up space to say: ‘You can get good security without the corruption.’ There’s an audience of center-right people that might be receptive,” said Jonathan Rhynold, a political science professor at Bar Ilan University. “They may be able to shift the balance within the blocs. Even if we are only talking about a shift of two seats, that can have a huge shift in coalition dynamics.”

Much of the focus will be on Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon and his center-right Kulanu party. Kahlon, 58, is a former Likud member who had a falling out with Netanyahu and formed his own party in 2015. His campaign ads are positioning the party as the “sane right.”

Through his term alongside Netanyahu, Kahlon has tried to defend Israel’s Supreme Court against efforts by Likud to erode its power to strike down government policy and legislation. Kahlon’s party could theoretically swing to a Gantz-led coalition in the case of an indictment, though he has been staking out hard-line right-wing positions during the campaign, like rejecting Trump’s expected peace initiative.

Another right-wing politician who could turn on Netanyahu is former Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman, who resigned from his coalition late last year.

Though Lieberman was Netanyahu’s chief of staff in the 1990s, they’ve had a rocky relationship ever since he left Likud more than 20 years ago. Lieberman’s right-wing Yisrael Beiteinu party draws heavily on the support of secular immigrants from the former Soviet Union, who aren’t driven by the kind of hardcore nationalist ideology of Israel’s pro-settler constituency.

To be sure, many analysts say that Netanyahu is still favored to win re-election and that blowback from an indictment won’t be enough to shift the tide. Election observers suggested that the indictments could actually boost Netanyahu’s political support, prompting calls to rally around the flag at a time of political vulnerability.

In a message to the right-wing faithful on Wednesday, the Likud party’s Twitter account published a video that asserted, “The Netanyahu investigations = a political assassination attempt.”

Netanyahu, for his part, has attacked the police, alleged he received unfair treatment from biased prosecutors, and said he’s the target of a conspiracy between Israel’s left wing, the media, and law enforcement.

Political analysts note that a bribery indictment has been expected for some time—that it’s already been priced into the market of Israeli public opinion—and few right-wing politicians will dare defy their political base by undermining Netanyahu.

“The bottom line if he will be indicted for bribery, I assume there will be some Likud voters who will feel uncomfortable to vote for someone indicted for bribery. It’s not politically correct. But this isn’t a surprise, the Israeli public knows all the details,” said Aviv Bushinsky, a former spokesperson for Netanyahu. “This isn’t something that Netanyahu will be wishing for, but it’s not game over.”

It’s unlikely that any of the right-wing party leaders will turn on the prime minister before the vote, because it could undermine their electoral prospects. However, once the results have been tallied and coalition bargaining starts, the smaller right-wing parties could be in a position to defect to Gantz.

Though Likud’s faithful are known for being relentlessly loyal to party leaders under attack, a partial rebuke at the polls could embolden prominent politicians such as former Education Minister Gideon Saar, Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan, and Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz, all of whom see themselves as potential successors to Netanyahu.

“It could be an earthquake,” said Shalev of Walla! News. “This is when the election is really starting.”

Joshua Mitnick is a journalist based in Tel Aviv. Twitter: @joshmitnick

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