On Thursday, Israeli Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit recommended that Netanyahu be indicted on charges of fraud, bribery and breach of trust in connection with three separate corruption cases. One centers on allegations that the Netanyahu family received illegal gifts, including Cuban cigars and tickets to a Mariah Carey concert, in exchange for political favors. The other two involve separate instances alleging that the prime minister exerted his influence in order to obtain favorable media coverage.
The prime minister denies the allegations against him, which have been discussed in the media for quite some time, and will have the opportunity to defend himself before a final decision on an indictment. But the political damage may already be done.
Mandelblit’s recommendation landed like a bombshell in the home stretch of Israeli election season. Netanyahu and his allies accuse the attorney general of bowing to “leftist pressure” by making the move before elections. But Mandelblit seemed to decide “that to delay action or to hold back would itself constitute meddling," wrote Dartmouth professor Bernard Avishai.
“The legal challenge is a serious blow to Netanyahu ahead of April 9 elections, which he had been predicted to win comfortably on the way to becoming the longest-serving prime minister in Israel’s history,” noted my colleagues Ruth Eglash and Loveday Morris. “But in recent weeks, as the attorney general’s announcement neared, Netanyahu slipped to second place in some opinion polls, especially after his two main rivals, Benny Gantz and Yair Lapid, decided to run against him on a joint ticket.”
Polling suggests that even a marginal shift in support away from right-wing parties to the opposition centrist alliance led by Gantz and Lapid could be fatal to Netanyahu’s reelection chances.
Gantz, a former commander of the Israeli Defense Forces, has urged the prime minister to resign. “Netanyahu, don’t forget — this country belongs to all of us, it’s not about left and right," he said on television last week. “Israel comes before everything. Unfortunately today, you chose a path that isn’t befitting a prime minister of Israel. Instead of choosing the good of the country — you chose your own well-being.”
The possibility of indictment takes Israel into unfamiliar territory. No sitting prime minister has ever faced the kind of recommendation made by Mandelblit; two times in the past, Israeli prime ministers opted to resign as investigations into the allegations continued.
But Netanyahu is in no mood to quit. At a hotel outside Tel Aviv on Monday, he drew the raucous cheers of members of his Likud party, while lambasting media “brainwashing” and the actions of leftist “thuggery.” In Trumpian language, he decried the “witch hunt" against him. Critics, including even a few voices within Likud, have warned that the prime minister is endangering the public’s trust in Israel’s institutions.
“It is what he has been saying for months, even years now, about investigations against him. And in the past it may have worked,” said Haaretz columnist and Netanyahu biographer Anshel Pfeffer in an interview with the New Yorker. “But because of the mounting evidence — and because the people who are behind this indictment, the attorney general and the chief of police, are clearly not stooges of the left but people handpicked by Netanyahu for their jobs — I don’t see it working this time. But it’s his only possible strategy if he wants to remain in power.”
Even so, Netanyahu’s precarious political position has only encouraged his divisive rhetoric. At the rally and on social media, Netanyahu revived a political slogan that warned “it’s either Bibi or Tibi,” a reference to Ahmed Tibi, an Israeli-Arab member of the Knesset, or parliament. His jockeying ahead of next month’s election also led him to encourage an alliance between three ultraright parties. One is run by the followers of the late Meir Kahane, an ultranationalist American Israeli rabbi accused of inciting racism and implicated in terror plots against those whom he believed to be enemies of Israel.
“Otzma Yehudit, or Jewish Power, is viewed by many as an offshoot of Kahane’s Kach party, which the State Department designated a terrorist organization,” my colleagues explained. “Members of Otzma Yehudit, including Kahane’s former parliamentary aide and his former students, believe that most Arabs support terrorism. The party’s political platform includes plans for the mass transfer of the Arab population out of Israel.”
For Netanyahu, though, that history matters less than the need to have the right factions in place to secure a sizable enough coalition in the Knesset after the elections. But the move proved beyond the pale even for some of his most committed boosters, including the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the prominent pro-Israel lobby group in Washington, which tweeted its disapproval of Kahane’s followers.
Netanyahu will visit Washington this month for AIPAC’s annual conference. It may prove to be a last hurrah for a politician deeply familiar with the American capital and closely allied to the current occupant of the White House. The Israeli prime minister may hope his global cache and the goodwill of President Trump will help retain voters’ support in April. “Trump doubtless identifies with Netanyahu’s legal predicament, and vice versa; both have used identical language to combat their adversaries: witch hunt, leftist plot and so on,” wrote former U.S. diplomat Aaron David Miller.
And it’s not just Trump. Netanyahu has been conspicuously friendly with a number of illiberal autocrats, including Russian President Vladimir Putin and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban. But while those two leaders can squeeze the media in their countries and stifle their critics, Netanyahu faces a sterner challenge from the Israeli judicial system.
“In his frustration, he resorted to these tactics," said Pfeffer, referring to the charges against the prime minister, "which are going to land him in court.”