“You conveyed demands to post positive news items about yourself, your wife, Sara Netanyahu, and members of your family, and photographs of you ... [and] to publish items with political messages that you desired to disseminate to the public.”
This is one snippet of Israeli Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit’s warning to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that he’s likely to be indicted on bribery and other corruption charges. The full document, released publicly, is 57 pages long, all written in stinging second person: “You ... you ... you.” Netanyahu’s demands, as listed by the attorney general, were directed to telecom tycoon Shaul Elovitch, whose holdings included Walla, one of Israel’s top two news websites.
The demands seem to have been fulfilled. In return for getting a remote control over the news — so Mandelblit alleges — Netanyahu made regulatory decisions that put hundreds of millions of dollars in Elovitch’s pocket. The paeans to Netanyahu reached their crescendo on each of the past two election days in Israel. The payoffs to Elovitch were apparently meant to tip the elections.
You might think that allegations such as these, from an incredibly cautious prosecutor, backed by mountains of evidence, would be enough to tip the next Israeli election against Netanyahu. You might hope that with Netanyahu’s exit, Israeli policy will shift leftward on the issue most essential to the country’s future — peace with the Palestinians and ending the occupation.
I'd also like to think and hope those things, but both are overly optimistic. Corruption, by itself, can be insufficient to swing an election. And if Netanyahu goes, the next Israeli government may show more personal integrity — but just as much intransigence.
The first reason is technical, but electoral technicalities can determine the fate of nations. In recent polling, the bloc of parties allied with Netanyahu and the bloc opposed to him are running virtually even. Sometimes the Netanyahu grouping looks likely to get a thin majority in parliament; sometimes the opposition is slightly ahead. If this pattern holds up till the April 9 election — a big if — the deciding factor is likely to be which small parties fall short of getting into parliament.
A ticket needs 3.25 percent of the national vote to get representation. If one of the small pro-Netanyahu parties gets just a bit less than that, its votes vanish and the opposition gains. But if one of the small parties supported mainly by the Arab minority gets a fraction of a percentage point too little, Netanyahu could stay in power. A shift of a few hundred votes for a splinter party — a mere political breeze — can have gale-force impact.
Here’s the thing, though: Polls were showing the same virtual tie before Mandelblit’s announcement a week ago. If you read those 57 pages, you have to wonder how anyone could vote for Netanyahu, especially knowing that his alleged corrupt actions may be the reason he’s in power today.
But very few voters read long legal documents. And even solid allegations of corruption often aren't enough to move large numbers from one political camp to another. This is upsetting, but not surprising. Corruption is likely to swing an election when voters see only a small difference between parties and between candidates' positions.
When political division are wide, when parties become tribes, corruption has less effect. Psychologist and Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman has written about the flaw in human minds that makes people devalue a proposal coming from the other side in a conflict. The same applies to allegations: If you think they come from your political adversaries, you devalue them.
Netanyahu plays on tribal division like a Stradivarius. His response to Mandelblit was that “the pressure of the left succeeded” and that the announcement was timed to “bring down the government of the right and bring the left to power.”
Even so, lots of people who will vote for Netanyahu’s Likud Party or its allies accept that he has probably broken the law. They also accept his claims that the chief electoral threat to his future, the new Blue and White Party led by Benny Gantz, consists of a bunch of leftists who are a danger to the country. Those voters’ attitude is summed up in the immortal words, “Vote for the crook. It’s important.”
The absurdity is that Blue and White’s platform on foreign policy and defense could practically be bought whole by the Likud. It says the party will “enable accelerated economic development” in the Palestinian Authority, but very loudly omits mention of a Palestinian state. It promises to keep East Jerusalem and major settlements under Israeli rule. It fits the views of the party’s No. 3, ex-defense minister Moshe Yaalon, who broke with Netanyahu over issues of character, not policy.
So if the corruption allegations push just enough voters to the opposition bloc, Israel is most likely to get a right-leaning government — without Netanyahu. If Gantz and his party fulfill their promises, they will create a less divisive government. They may open space for a calmer debate on Israel’s direction. The hard work of changing that direction will likely remain for the next election.