Netanyahu Remains Israel’s Indispensable Man

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during a weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem, December 23, 2018 (Ronen Zvulun/Reuters)
Bibi’s latest victory is his most impressive — but it may also mean that the end of his long career is in sight.

Can a national leader win re-election despite voter fatigue with his long tenure and with corruption indictments hanging over him? The answer for Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu after Tuesday’s election was a resounding yes. The reasons for this have as much to do with a sea change in Israeli politics that has transformed the country in the last 20 years as they do with Netanyahu’s accomplishments in office.

But his problem is that, although he is the beneficiary of a strong consensus on both the success of his policies and the bankruptcy of those of his opponents, Netanyahu’s legal woes may mean this will be his last triumph.

While the results were still not final by Wednesday morning, there was no doubt that Netanyahu’s coalition had scored a victory by securing 65 seats in the 120-member Knesset. The prime minister’s Likud party won 35 seats. That left it tied for the top spot with challenger Benny Gantz’s Blue and White party, which also finished the night at 35. Yet the group of right-wing and religious parties that were pledged to support Netanyahu for prime minister won a combined 30 seats, while the two left-wing parties that would have backed Gantz’s bid got only ten, with Arab parties winning another ten. Those totals ensured that Netanyahu would form the next government.

Blue and White’s showing was an impressive debut for Gantz, a former chief of staff of the Israel Defense Forces. Even after walking back his premature claims of victory on Tuesday evening, he made it clear he expected to win the next time Israelis vote. He might well have the chance to do so long before the new parliament’s term of office expires in five years, because of Netanyahu’s legal problems. With Israel’s attorney general likely to approve three separate corruption indictments against the prime minister sometime in the next year, how long the new government will last — it will eventually be sworn in after coalition negotiations are concluded — is uncertain.

But for now, there are some conclusions that can be drawn from the vote with some certainty.

The first is that the Israeli people are largely content with Netanyahu’s conduct in office. On his watch, Israel’s economy has prospered and the country has never been more secure or less diplomatically isolated. While his opponents warned that Israel could not thrive or escape being made an international pariah without a peace deal, Netanyahu has proved them wrong. With no credible rivals on the right and the country’s left-wing parties in shambles, Netanyahu has succeeded not just in winning elections but also in making himself appear to be the country’s one indispensable man.

But the most important conclusion about the election concerns Israeli attitudes toward the possibility of peace with the Palestinians. Though negotiations with the Palestinian Authority have been deadlocked for years, this issue may return to the country’s front burner with the expected unveiling of the Trump administration’s Middle East peace plan sometime in the near future.

The parameters of Trump’s offer are, as of yet, uncertain. But since in past the Palestinians have rejected peace plans that were more generous to them than Trump’s is expected to be, the likelihood is that they won’t even negotiate with the U.S., let alone accept any scheme that requires them to recognize the legitimacy of a Jewish state, no matter where its borders are drawn. The loss of faith in peace with the Palestinians is due to their intransigent rejection of peace offers, and terrorism destroyed the once-dominant Labor party. While Gantz’s Blue and White is now the leader of the center-left faction, the former general’s ability to present himself as a plausible alternative to Netanyahu rests on the fact that his approach to the Palestinians is virtually identical to that of Netanyahu and on the fact that his party includes figures such as Moshe Yaalon, another former top general and Likud defense minister, whose views on security issues are arguably to the right of the prime minister.

In the days preceding the vote, Netanyahu made clear just how little he thinks of the chances for peace by vowing to extend Israeli law to some of the West Bank settlements and by promising never to uproot any settlers. Left-wing critics and Democratic presidential candidates Bernie Sanders and Beto O’Rourke denounced those statements for sabotaging the chances of peace. But most Israelis shrugged at the gesture, since few believe there is any hope for a two-state solution in the foreseeable future, owing to the lack of a Palestinian peace partner. Instead, they simply took it as a political tactic intended to help the Likud win votes that might otherwise have gone to his right-wing allies, which it probably did.

The Trump plan will present Netanyahu with a problem, since he has no intention of saying “no” to anything proposed by Trump. The overwhelming majority of Israelis agree with the prime minister when he declares that Trump is the greatest friend their country has ever had in the White House. More to the point, Trump’s efforts to help Netanyahu — in contrast to the furious efforts of Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama to defeat him in the past — places him under a personal obligation to the president.

Most of his coalition will oppose any peace plan that calls for a Palestinian state of any kind. But Netanyahu believes that he can simply wait for the Palestinians to reject Trump, relieving him of the need to choose between offending his superpower ally and antagonizing his followers.

But the willingness of so many Israelis to ignore or to dismiss the corruption charges against Netanyahu is more than a tribute to their faith in the prime minister.

Netanyahu’s detractors regard the indifference of much of the voting public to the charges against him as evidence of the decline of Israeli democracy. But, regardless of the truth of these allegations — which revolve around the question of inappropriate gifts from donors and Netanyahu’s efforts to influence the press — those Israelis who voted for the Likud and its partners were unimpressed by the charges. They view them as not rising to the level of seriousness that would justify ousting a prime minister from power and believe, not without some justification, that the legal establishment and the media are hopelessly biased against Netanyahu and the Right. Moreover, they also think the talk of an assault on democracy to be a function of liberal anger over the outcome of democratic elections in which the voters have rejected the Left’s preferred candidates and policies.

Should Israel’s attorney general ultimately approve indictments of Netanyahu, that would result in a political earthquake that could start to unravel the prime minister’s secure hold on power. The same is true if the new coalition passes controversial legislation that would exempt the prime minister from prosecution while he’s in office. Israel’s Supreme Court — whose liberal rulings and ability to resist efforts to change its political complexion by democratically elected governments has made it a particular target of the Right’s ire — would likely strike down such a law.

At that point, Netanyahu would be faced with the choice of continuing in office under indictment or resigning. That could mean new elections in which Gantz’s loosely cobbled-together coalition might have a better chance of ending the Likud’s long run in power even though it still won’t be presenting the public with an alternative to Netanyahu’s policies on peace or a replacement who is as trusted as the prime minister.

Winning an unprecedented fourth consecutive election and fifth term overall (he will overtake David Ben-Gurion as the country’s longest serving prime minister in July) has made Netanyahu a uniquely successful and historic figure. But while this is the product of a political consensus that remains unchallenged, it’s also true that this latest and perhaps most satisfying victory for him could mean the end of his long career is finally in sight.