Allegations against Netanyahu shake up Israeli elections

1 March 2019
Main Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu meets with President Donald Trump. White House photo.
The Israeli attorney general Thursday announced his intention to bring criminal charges against Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu as part of a series of long-running corruption investigations. The decision deals another blow to Netanyahu, who was already facing a tough battle for reelection in the April 9 polls. Eurasia Group expert Henry Rome discusses the criminal investigations, the political opposition, and how Netanyahu could still overcome both to win a fourth consecutive term.
What is the case against Netanyahu and what happens next?
The attorney general accused Netanyahu of fraud and breach of trust in three criminal probes. In the most serious case, Netanyahu is also accused of bribery for allegedly using his role as communications minister from 2014 to 2017 to benefit a telecom mogul in exchange for positive press coverage. The attorney general accused Netanyahu of “severely damaging public trust” and receiving benefits “while knowing you were taking a bribe as a public servant.” The prime minister has vociferously denied the allegations, which he labels a “witch hunt” organized by opponents in the left, the media, the police, and prosecutors. Although the attorney general presented his “announcement of suspicions,” Netanyahu has not been formally charged or indicted. The next stage will be months of hearings, at which the prime minister's legal team will try to convince the attorney general to drop the case. Israeli voters will head to the polls before the attorney general makes this final decision.
What will be the electoral impact of the allegations?
The allegations pose a major liability for Netanyahu and will weigh on his chances of reelection—but probably not to the extent that some have assumed. The attorney general's report is lengthy and blunt. The prime minister's alleged wrongdoing is outlined in detail, providing a gold mine for Netanyahu's political opponents. Netanyahu must now fight both for his political future and his freedom. Nevertheless, the veteran politician has spent months bracing his supporters for this development. The accusations are not new, and it's a good bet that they have been priced in to the views of many Israelis. And his coalition members have stayed by his side. Therefore, while the attorney general's report is damaging, it does not remove Netanyahu from contention by any means.
Does Netanyahu face a strong challenger in the elections?
Yes, he does. Benny Gantz, a former military chief of staff, is leading the charge to unseat Netanyahu. Gantz, a political novice, has partnered with the centrist Yesh Atid party to form an electoral alliance named Blue & White after the colors of the Israeli flag. In addition to Gantz and Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid, the list includes two other former chiefs of staff, Moshe Ya'alon and Gabi Ashkenazi—a strong counterpoint to Netanyahu's self-styled reputation as “Mr. Security.” Although the members at the top of the ticket have disparate views on key issues, including the Palestinians, they are united by their desire to unseat the premier. Israelis have rewarded the new list with strong poll numbers, and the opposition's newfound cohesion has pushed Netanyahu to take the extraordinary step of brokering a deal that could bring a racist, fringe party into the parliament. But Blue & White will probably grapple with a number of internal challenges ahead of the elections. Gantz has strategically avoided taking clear positions on most policy issues to avoid exposing differences of opinion. But voters will probably demand more clarity as the polls come closer, which could present a significant test for the list.
How will relations with the US play into the campaign?
For Netanyahu, the relationship he has forged with President Donald Trump represents one of his most compelling selling points; Netanyahu's party has even erected huge campaign billboards showing Trump shaking hands with the prime minister. Trump will likely play along. Hours before the attorney general's allegations were released, Trump said Netanyahu has “done a great job as prime minister.” Trump will likely welcome Netanyahu to the White House when the prime minister visits Washington later this month. Looming in the background is the administration's Middle East peace plan, led by Jared Kushner, but this will likely not play an important role in the election—assuming the US maintains its commitment to not release details of the plan until after 9 April. Even if Gantz becomes Israeli prime minister, relations with Washington are very unlikely to change much, given the deep, strategic ties between the two countries.
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