By: Benjamin Flaig (Guest Writer)
If Likud, the party he chairs, gains the majority of the Knesset’s 120 seats, Netanyahu will be tasked with forming his fifth government. Having served as prime minister for the past 12 years, he would surpass state founder David Ben Gurion as Israel’s longest serving Prime Minister if re-elected. Despite this long standing show of political strength, Netanyahu is facing the most critical period of his career.
On December 19 2018, the state prosecutor’s office announced that it recommended the indictment of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu t in two cases: Case 2000 and Case 4000. In the former, Netanyahu is accused of offering newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth advantageous government policies in exchange for favorable news coverage. In Case 4000, the so-called Bezeq-Walla Affair, he is suspected of intervening with regulators to help Bezeq-owner and telecom tycoon Shaul Elovitch close a deal worth one billion Shekels. In return, Netanyahu allegedly gained favorable news coverage for him and his wife Sara on the homepage of the Bezeq-owned news site “Walla”. Now, Attorney General Avichai Mendelbit will decide whether and when to indict Prime Minister Netanyahu.
While the prime minister’s lawyers are negotiating with the attorney general’s office the option of announcing merely a possible indictment after the scheduled elections in April, it seems more likely that Mendelbit will officially inform Netanyahu about the intent to indict, with a pre-indictment interview taking place before the elections. Latest polls show that Likud will possibly lose four seats if Netanyahu is indicted, but will still have a comfortable lead with 25 seats. Netanyahu and fellow Likud law-makers launched aggressive attacks against the investigation. In a Likud video-advertisement on January 19, Netanyahu claimed that “an indictment for bribery would be a surrender by the attorney general to the left and the media.” Borrowing language that seems to be inspired by Trump, Netanyahu himself has called the whole investigation a “witch hunt” which has been “tainted from the start”.
For Netanyahu, the corruption investigations are likely to be his endgame. They will not halt after the election and he will likely be indicted in at least one more case. He is highly aware of the fate of former prime minister, Ehud Olmert, who was sentenced to prison for accepting bribes during his term. Aggressive attacks by Netanyahu and fellow Likud politicians indicate that Netanyahu will not follow in Olmert’s footsteps without a fight. Nevertheless, being voted into office for the fourth consecutive time could end in his resignation under the corruption charges; a few possible successors are already readying themselves.
After much speculation about his political ambitions, former Chief of Staff Benny Gantz announced his new Israel Resilience Party (Hosen L’Yisrael) on the December 27 of last year. Gantz is highly popular among the people due to his tenure as IDF Chief of Staff, and is considered Netanyahu’s top contender. While Gantz’s Israel Resilience Party is currently polling second behind Likud and is expected to win 10-14 seats, not much is known about the party’s political programme. In his only available short public speech from January 14, Gantz announced that he would “do anything in his power to correct” Israel’s controversial Nation State Law, which some critics have accused of imposing apartheid-like measures. On January 20, Gantz’s campaign released their slogan “Israel Before Everything.” At present, those are the only public political stances of Gantz’s party. But despite the lack of positioning, he remains popular among the public, scoring well in the polls.
The center-left, on the other hand, remains in disarray. The head of the state-founding Labor party Avi Gabbay publicly and unilaterally dismantled the Zionist Union, dissolving the partnership with Tzipi Livni’s Hatnuah party during a press conference. Livni was completely caught by surprise, resulting in a public relations disaster for Gabbay. Now, it is not unlikely that Labor might receive a single digit result in the elections for the first time. Other contenders include Yair Lapid’s party, Yesh Atid, which is also polling between 12-14 seats. If Lapid runs together with Livni’s Hatnuah they are likely to lead the opposition. In an upheaval on the right, the leaders of the religious-Zionist Jewish Home party (Habayit Hayehudi), chairman and minister of education, Naftali Bennet, and Justice Minister Ayalet Shaked, left their party. They now co-lead their newly founded secular right-wing party called the New Right (Hayamin Hahadash), with which they hope to expand their voter base into secular parts of the right-wing electorate, potentially claiming some Likud voters.
In all likelihood, the next Israeli prime minister will be Benjamin Netanyahu for a fifth time. Whether he will remain prime minister throughout his whole term, however, will likely be decided in court.