The decision by Israel’s attorney general to indict Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu may prove to be a game changer in the upcoming Israeli elections.
BY JONATHAN OFIR
The big news in the Israeli elections is the decision of State Attorney Avichai Mandelblit to indict Prime Minister Netanyahu for fraud, bribery and breach of trust in three criminal cases, pending a hearing (which is expected to take place after elections April 9th). Mandelblit announced his decision this Thursday. Alison Kaplan Sommer covers this concisely in Haaretz, and notes the technical issues concerning Netanyahu’s political future:
“The attorney general’s decision to indict Netanyahu will not be official until after the hearing and there isn’t even a legal requirement for him to resign as prime minister if he is then indicted. It is fully possible – many say probable – that he will remain in power if he wins the election and is subsequently indicted, despite doubts that he can prepare a legal defense while running the country.”
Yet the question is what this indictment would mean in terms of votes. Despite Netanayhu’s attempts to frame this as a “blatant intervention in the elections by leftist bullies”, a “witch hunt”, calling Mandelblit “weak” and using the indictment to race-bait “Arab parties”, many Likud supporters take this seriously. 28% of those planning to vote for Likud said that they would not vote for the party if the attorney general announces his intention to indict Netanyahu, according to a recent Times of Israel poll (24th-27th February). The poll suggests Likud could lose four Knesset seats (down from 29 to 25), and the centrist Blue and White of Benny Gantz and Yair Lapid could get a massive gain of 8 seats (up to 44 from 36). Although this still means that either party would need to form a coalition in order to make a 61-seat majority in the 120-seat parliament, Thursday’s announcement may prove to be a game changer.
The announcement is also predicted to cause a redistribution of votes beyond the Likud fall, with the result that Likud’s ability to form a coalition with likely partners might be cut down to 55 seats. The religious Shas and the right-nationalist Yisrael Beitenu are just on the electoral threshold and might not survive the news. While the New Right and centrist Kulanu parties (both further right than Blue and White) seem to gain from the indictment announcement (New Right growing from 8 to 10 seats, Kulanu growing from 4 to 6). Both are possible Likud partners.
On the left side of the spectrum, Labor seems unaffected, with its roughly projected 8 seats. If Blue and White join with Labor and Kulanu, for example, they would only need another party like United Torah Judaism (UTJ), or maybe even the leftist Meretz (lightly strengthened from 4 to 5 seats), to form a viable coalition.
A masterful political survivor
But I wouldn’t say it’s game over. If Shas and Yisrael Beitenu survive the threshold (they are just on the edge), then Likud might be able to form a viable coalition of 63 seats (Likud, New Right, UTJ, United Right List, Kulanu, Yisrael Beitenu, Shas).
Gantz has already made clear that he would not join forces with Likud if Netanyahu were indicted, and has already called upon Netanyahu to resign just ahead of Mandelblit’s announcement, since Israel can’t have a ‘half-time PM’. But when asked to decide between Netanyahu and Benny Gantz as prime minister, 41% of Israelis said Netanyahu, and only 39% said Benny Gantz. Netanyahu thus has huge clout in the Israeli public. This is even more clearly expressed in specific questions:
41% trust Netanyahu to protect Israel’s security, as opposed to 30% who trust Gantz.
41% trust Netanyahu more to manage Israeli economy, with only 25% trusting Gantz.
So in terms of persona, Netanyahu still appears to be leading on Gantz considerably. But persona alone cannot make a Prime Minister. The Prime Minister in Israel needs to lead a majority coalition, and things are not looking good for Netanyahu. Though many things can happen from now to April 9th, if there’s one thing we know about Netanyahu, it’s that he is a masterful political survivor who’s willing to apply all sorts of conspiracy theories and race-baiting in an attempt to ensure his win. It is doubtful that he will give up here. He will probably up his incitement, as he did in his race-baiting speech.
Finally, let it be known, none of this represents any prospect of any sort of revolution in Israeli politics.
All these calculations have little meaning for Palestinians. Their representation in Israeli politics will continue to be marginalized. Netanyahu’s person and personal corruption is one thing, but the ideological corruption of Israel vis-à-vis Palestinians is something that would not be changed by any of these players – not by Gantz who boasts of killing many Palestinians, nor by Lapid who wants “maximum territory” and “minimum Palestinians”. It’s all just a question of who will head the status quo.
A recent post on Facebook by Israeli-Palestinian lawmaker Neveen Abu Rahmoun (Balad) eloquently emphasizes this point (translated by Ofer Neiman):
“We’d be happier being notified about an indictment against Benjamin Netanyahu for the war crimes his government has committed, or for the racist incitement and violence that he’s leading against Arab society, and for the disasters that his colonial, capitalist and swinish policy has brought upon us. No doubt, Netanyahu must stand trial as a corrupt politician, but it’s desirable that he stand trial in the future for all the other crimes he committed and instructed to commit by his government’s policies.”
The views expressed in this opinion piece are the writer’s only and do not necessarily represent those of The Turban Times.
This article by Jonathan Ofir was first published by Mondoweiss. An edited version appears on The Turban Times.