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Netanyahu’s Referendum

What’s at Stake for the Israeli Prime Minister in the Early Election

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

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