Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Brasilia, Brazil, January 2019
Adriano Machado / REUTERS

This year’s Israeli election, scheduled for April 9, will not turn on the usual issues—security, the economy, religious and social divisions—so much as it will serve as a referendum on Benjamin Netanyahu’s fitness to continue serving as prime minister with three corruption cases pending against him.

Netanyahu has been in office for ten straight years, which is so long that many Israelis can hardly recall a different leader or leadership style. In December, he bet the house by calling an early election. If the prime minister successfully renews his mandate before being indicted, a legal loophole will allow him to keep his job even if he goes on trial. He will also have demonstrated that voters prefer Netanyahu—even as a defendant—to the alternatives, which will put him in a better position to bargain with his prosecutors. If Netanyahu wins the uphill legal battle that awaits him, he will appear politically invincible. And the abbreviated campaign cycle will make it harder for Israel’s dysfunctional opposition to rally around an effective challenger.  

Netanyahu is expected to win the election. But unlike the two previous elections, this time, he will have a challenger: Benny Gantz, former chief of staff of the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF), who announced his candidacy on January 29. Even if Gantz ultimately does not defeat Netanyahu, his emergence as a candidate could redraw Israel’s political map—for one, by encouraging small and medium-sized parties to merge in order to survive the showdown between Gantz and Netanyahu.

Benny Gantz, former Israeli armed forces chief, at his campaign launch in Tel Aviv, Israel, January 29, 2019
Benny Gantz, former Israeli armed forces chief, at his campaign launch in Tel Aviv, Israel, January 29, 2019
Amir Cohen / REUTERS

COMEBACK KID

By serving such a long time in office, Netanyahu has brought stability to Israel’s fractured coalition system. In the first decade of the 2000s, Israel was led by three different prime ministers who presided over different coalition governments. Netanyahu’s comeback after his unsuccessful first term as prime minister from 1996 to 1999, and the rightward shift in Israeli public opinion, which tracks well with Netanyahu’s own conservatism, have made him popular as an elder statesman.

Under Netanyahu’s watch, with the exception of the 2014 war with Gaza, Israel has enjoyed relatively quiet borders and few terrorist attacks. Its economy has grown and unemployment has reached historic lows. Moreover, Netanyahu appears closer than ever to achieving his lifetime goals. One of these is defeating the Palestinian national movement with little use of military force or sacrifice on the Israeli side. The other is to get the world to accept as permanent Israel's blockade of the Gaza Strip and occupation of the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and the Golan Heights.

Following his reelection in 2015, Netanyahu assembled an ideologically cohesive coalition of conservatives, religious Zionists, and Sephardic Jews in an effort to replace Israel’s “old elites,” who tended to be secular and Western-oriented Ashkenazim. Ever since 1977, when the conservative Likud party defeated the left in legislative elections for the first time in 30 years, Israeli conservatives have complained that they can win elections but not rule the country, because the old elite still controls the real seats of power: the military, the Supreme Court, the media, and academic institutions. The political goal of Netanyahu's elite replacement project was a sweeping one. Some among the old elite had promoted a “land for peace” formula for ending the Arab-Israeli conflict, meaning that Israel would withdraw from most of the territories it had been occupying since 1967 in exchange for peace. Netanyahu sought to take this option off the table and to delegitimize criticism of Israel's occupation and settlements in the West Bank.

Netanyahu’s plans were well under way by the middle of 2016, as I wrote in “The End of the Old Israel” (July/August 2016). Right-wing politicians and NGO leaders accused their counterparts on the left and within the Arab Israeli community of treason. Border control officers denied entry to foreigners who were critical of the occupation or supported boycotting Israel. Netanyahu's mouthpieces in the media and politics portrayed the sponsors of human rights groups, whether these were European governments or liberal NGOs, as enemies of the state seeking to destroy its Jewish character. Ministers in Netanyahu’s cabinet tried to fill the Supreme Court with conservatives, rewrote school curricula in a more Zionist and ethnocentric direction, and threatened to cut state subsidies from cultural institutions that criticized the occupation. The public loved the program and wanted more: in poll after poll, Israelis identified no challenger to Netanyahu.

Donald Trump's surprising victory in the U.S. Presidential election of 2016 was the greatest coup of all. For the first time in his many years in office, Netanyahu could expect strong support from a U.S. president rather than clashes over the peace process or West Bank settlement expansion, as had been commonplace during the administrations of Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. Trump made his first visit to Israel shortly after his inauguration. And in May 2018, he moved the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, offering unprecedented international recognition to Israel’s contested capital and a diplomatic victory to Netanyahu. The move made Trump extremely popular with Israelis: in a Pew survey published in October 2018, 69 percent of Israelis stated that they had confidence in Trump, compared with only 27 percent of respondents worldwide.

Trump has not completely reversed U.S. policy in the Middle East. Like his predecessors, he has condemned Israel’s expansion of its settlements in the West Bank. And although he has not committed to the two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict—a mainstay of U.S. policy for almost two decades—he has promised an alternative plan. So far that plan’s details remain unclear. Netanyahu, fearing criticism from “no-inch” supporters on the right, who do not want any compromise with the Palestinians, no matter how small, has asked Trump not to unveil the plan until after the Israeli election. Trump has agreed. In return, Netanyahu has quietly accepted the U.S. retreat from Syria, even though the American withdrawal will strengthen Israel’s enemies across its northern borders and make Russia the key power broker there.

NOTES ON A SCANDAL

Netanyahu’s streak of good luck ended in December 2016, when details began to emerge of multiple police investigations into his conduct. One case, Case 1000, involves the prime minister’s receipt of expensive cigars, champagne, and jewelry from billionaires. Cases 2000 and 4000 concern his efforts to bribe Israel’s two largest news sites, YNET and Walla!, offering favorable regulations in exchange for positive coverage in the leadup to the 2015 election. The attorney general cleared Netanyahu of accusations that he was involved in a fourth case, Case 3000, which involved illegal payments to brokers involved in a major submarine and missile frigates procurement deal for Israel’s navy. Several of Netanyahu’s cronies and aides remain under suspicion of involvement in such a scheme and are waiting for the prosecutors to decide on indictments.

Netanyahu first dismissed the investigations as meaningless, but as the criminal process wore on, evidence mounted against him. In late 2018, following the testimony of three former aides turned state witnesses, the police recommended indicting the prime minister on charges of bribery, fraud, and breach of trust. Now Israel’s attorney general, Avichai Mandelblit, has the final word. His decision will be made in three stages. First he will issue a declaration of intent to press charges. Then he will hold a private hearing, during which Netanyahu's lawyers will try to convince him to close the case or reduce the charges. Finally, he will decide whether to indict the prime minister. Netanyahu has begged Mandelblit, his former cabinet secretary and prior to that, the IDF’s Judge Advocate General, to delay the first step—his declaration of intent, originally scheduled to be issued in February—until after the April election. Mandelblit rejected the appeal, refusing to adapt the legal timetable for political reasons.

When Netanyahu realized that the charges were serious, he resorted to defending his reputation through political fighting. The prime minister is a master storyteller, always casting himself as a bare-handed hero fighting a mighty monster: Obama, Iran, the New Israel Fund (a progressive NGO), or his favorite antagonist, the media. Throughout the criminal process, Netanyahu has portrayed the police and prosecution as stooges of the media who agreed to frame the prime minister for imaginary crimes. No matter that Netanyahu himself appointed the outgoing police chief and the attorney general—both devout religious Zionists with decades of experience in the military and secret service—as part of his elite replacement project. Now they topped his list of enemies. Netanyahu’s base applauded these tactics and supported him all the more.

The prime minister is a master storyteller, always casting himself as a bare-handed hero fighting a mighty monster.

Smearing his accusers was not enough. Netanyahu also made several bold policy moves catering to his base. In July 2018, he helped push the controversial Nation State Bill through the Knesset. The bill defines Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people and lacks provisions for the equality of non-Jews. It thereby gives Jews preferred status in Israel, a notion that many Jewish citizens support, and which arguably reflects the reality on the ground. According to a 2016 Pew survey of Israeli public opinion, 79 percent of Jewish respondents supported “preferential treatment” of Jews. The bill has become a hot-button issue in Israeli society, redrawing the traditional left-right divide that has long characterized debates over the occupied territories.

In foreign policy, Netanyahu has befriended right-wing leaders around the world, from central Europe to the Philippines and Brazil. He has strengthened behind-the-scenes ties with Egypt, Jordan, and the Gulf monarchies. With a succession of high-profile meetings with like-minded world leaders, he has sent the message that Israel can normalize its relations with other countries even while continuing its occupation—exactly as he had promised at the start of his career, when veterans of the Israeli foreign policy and security establishments had ridiculed him for it.

For much of his career, the prime minister sustained only tense relationships with his country’s top military and intelligence brass. His greatest rivals—former Prime Ministers Yitzhak Rabin, Ehud Barak, and Ariel Sharon—were all military heroes turned politicians who mocked Netanyahu’s television savvy and excellent American English. Netanyahu and his cronies, in turn, portrayed the country’s military and intelligence leadership as defeatist left-wing patsies.

In the past two years, Netanyahu has remade these relationships. He and Gadi Eizenkot, until last month the chief of staff of the IDF, put aside past differences and united around their shared reluctance to use major force across the border with Gaza and their concern about Iran's military buildup in Syria. In May 2018, when thousands of Palestinians protested Israel's blockade of Gaza by marching and throwing fire balloons, Netanyahu and Eizenkot agreed to crack down with sharpshooters, killing or wounding hundreds of Gazans.

But even these actions did not satisfy some right-wing leaders, who wanted to see Hamas “crushed.” Former defense minister Avigdor Lieberman was among those calling for a harsher response. He was eventually forced to resign over his disagreement with Eizenkot and Netanyahu, who refused to change course in Gaza in response to criticism from the far right. Following Lieberman’s resignation in November 2018, Netanyahu quickly appointed himself as defense minister, adding to his existing role as foreign minister. Among other things, the new title offers Netanyahu's campaign photo opportunities with uniformed personnel, who are extremely popular in Israeli society.

THE FUTURE OF NETANYAHU’S ISRAEL

For seven years, Israel had avoided an active role in the Syria conflict and denied its involvement in fighting across its northern border. But Russia’s support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and Iran's wider involvement on the ground has raised that conflict’s stakes for Israel. In September 2018, when Israeli missile strikes hit Syrian government targets, Syrian air defenses shot down a low-flying Russian intelligence plane by mistake. Moscow blamed Israeli recklessness and turned a cold shoulder to Netanyahu. Netanyahu, now defense minister, was forced to abandon Israel’s strategy of covert involvement and publicized Israeli attacks for the first time.

Gantz's announcement speech electrified the defeated center-left.

Netanyahu is unlikely to risk getting more deeply involved in a military adventure in Syria or the Gaza Strip just in order to gain popularity in the leadup to the election. So far he has seen greater reward in avoiding aggressive initiatives. But if Hamas were to provoke him in the Gaza Strip, or Iran and its proxies were to do so in Syria, he might overreact.

Netanyahu is entering this campaign cycle with many of his goals achieved or on their way to being achieved. His party, Likud, is the dominant political body in Israel and it leads in the polls. But once he wins reelection, as he is expected to do, he will likely struggle to build a stable coalition, especially if one or more of his right-wing partners fails to pass the threshold of Knesset membership. And if he is indicted, he may lose some of his prospective partners in government.

Gantz—the first candidate to come close to rivaling Netanyahu—fits the mold of the farmer-soldier-politician, of the sort that once dominated Israeli politics. His announcement speech electrified the defeated center-left, worried Netanyahu's campaign, and brought winds of change to Israeli politics for the first time in a decade. Gantz has presented himself as the clean candidate who seeks to restore the “old Israel” and amend the Nation-State Law. This puts him slightly to the left of Netanyahu, but he has also recruited several of Netanyahu's right-wing aides and refused partnerships with identified leftists. Without political experience, a party organization, or the time he would need to bring more parties and political groups under his tent, Gantz will be hard pressed to position himself as a reliable alternative to Netanyahu. He may still seek a post-election partnership with the prime minister, probably as defense minister.

Netanyahu began his latest campaign with several moves designed to appeal to his right-wing base. He pledged never to remove West Bank settlements, and to discontinue the international peacekeeping mission in Hebron, a long-standing source of irritation to Jewish settlers there. But the prime minister’s real test awaits him at the Justice Ministry building on Saladin Street in East Jerusalem, where Mandelblit will be the final arbiter of Netanyahu's remarkable career.