If Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu wins next year’s freshly announced snap election, he will become Israel’s longest-serving premier — besting even the country’s founder, David Ben-Gurion.
Recent polling suggests that Netanyahu is on course to do just that, despite his involvement in corruption scandals that could yet send him to prison.
Such controversies have dogged him since his first stint in power more than two decades ago. But while scandals aren’t rare in Israeli politics — former prime minister Ehud Olmert served a prison term on corruption charges — Netanyahu’s ability to weather them is unique.
Analysts suggest that right-wing voters see Netanyahu’s economic and foreign policy successes, coupled with a hard line on most issues related to Palestinians, as reasons to overlook his legal troubles.
“Let’s say a mayor of a city someplace runs a city nicely,” one unnamed Israeli pollster told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency this month. “Even if convicted of corruption, they feel he has advanced the city and don’t feel that his corruption hit them personally.”
Netanyahu first took power in 1996, when he became the youngest prime minister of Israel. Many attributed his unexpected success in that year’s election to the use of American-style campaigning, as well as suicide bombings that rocked Israel shortly before the vote and energized the country’s right wing.
By 1997, Netanyahu was facing the prospect of corruption charges related to influence peddling, after the short-lived appointment of an attorney general who many said was unqualified for the job. Netanyahu and his wife, Sara, later faced accusations that they had taken state gifts for themselves and attempted to defraud the government.
Attorney General Elyakim Rubinstein ruled that there was not enough evidence to convict Netanyahu on allegations of bribery, theft and obstruction of justice but that the evidence available suggested “a degree of ugliness.”
Netanyahu was resoundingly defeated in the 1999 election but returned to politics in the 2000s and eventually became prime minister again in 2009. Just two years after that, he was accused of overcharging the state for travel expenses during his stints as finance minister and opposition leader, in what became known as the “Bibi Tours” scandal.
Many of the scandals involved not just Netanyahu but also his family. Sara Netanyahu was accused of ordering lavish meals from outside caterers to the family’s official residence and having a fondness for pink champagne and other luxuries; she is already on trial on fraud charges. The couple’s son Yair was secretly recorded during a strip-club visit bragging about a secret $20 billion deal with a tycoon, among other things.
Since 2016, police have recommended indictments against Benjamin Netanyahu in three investigations: Case 1000, which involves illegal gifts to the Netanyahu family of things such as champagne and Cuban cigars; Case 2000, which involves allegations that Netanyahu discussed curbing the circulation of a newspaper as a favor to the paper’s competitor; and Case 4000, which deals with allegations of arranging favorable media coverage for a deal with a telecom company.
There is also a separate investigation, Case 3000, that centers on alleged bribery in military procurement, but police did not recommend an indictment against Netanyahu himself in the matter.
Any decisions about indictments will be made by Israel’s attorney general, Avichai Mandelblit. In a statement Monday, Israel’s Justice Ministry said it would continue its investigations as planned, though the process is expected to take months.
This means that if Netanyahu does win the election, he could set another record by becoming the first Israeli prime minister to face trial while in office. His office does not offer him immunity from trial, but there is no legal requirement for him to resign while facing trial — and few expect him to step down willingly.