Stockholm (Ekonamik) – Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu finds himself in an unexpectedly difficult predicament that could bring an end to his premiership and 13 years in power just a few weeks ahead of Israeli elections on April 9.
The Likud leader, who was expected to coast to victory and was comfortably ahead in the polls, has been charged with corruption and faces Kahol Lavan, a new coalition formed just last week comprised of rival party leaders, to oust him.
Also last week, Israeli Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit, a Netanyahu appointee, recommended the indictment of Mr Netanyahu on charges of fraud, bribery and breach of trust in connection with three separate corruption cases, two of which include allegations that the prime minister used the influence of his office to obtain favourable media coverage.
Mr Netanyahu denies the charges, which were well known, but Mr Mandelblit’s recommendation to indict came as a shock at the tail end of the Israeli election season, causing Mr Netanyahu to slip to second place in some opinion polls. Polls indicate that the indictment announcement could cost Likud an additional four seats in the Knesset.
Should Mr Netanyahu prevail, it will become more difficult for him to assemble a governing coalition, despite recently encouraging an alliance between three ultra-right wing parties (beyond the ones already in his government) with a view towards securing factions to assemble a coalition. He described the allegations in Trumpian language as a “witch hunt”, reiterating that he would not resign. Mr Netanyahu retains the support of his current coalition partners, for now.
But Mr Netanyahu’s two main centrist rivals, Benny Gantz of the Hosen L’Yisrael party and Yair Lapid of the Yesh Atid party (and a former finance minister under Mr Netanyahu), have joined forces on the Kahol Lavan Knesset list to run against him on a ticket which promises a power-sharing agreement (Mr Lapid would replace Mr Gantz as prime minister halfway through the term). They are joined by Moshe Ya’alon of the Telem party, which is, however, another far-right party harbouring its own disagreements with Mr Netanyahu.
The new coalition is still a list and not a party, however, and is a rather chaotic mixture of conflicting political views from often opposing poles of the ideological spectrum whose only real common cause is to end Mr Netanyahu’s tenure. The question for voters, then, is what will happen should Kahol Lavan actually achieve its objective, and whether it is capable of surviving as a political unit internally beyond the election.
Kahol Lavan would also likely have to depend on forming a centrist coalition with the established Labor and a post-Netanyahu Likud parties, as of the 47 parties and lists running in the April 9 election, only up to 10 of these have a chance of crossing the 3.25% electoral threshold to have representatives in the Knesset.
And therein lies the rub. Israeli politics has always been a tough arena for new and smaller parties, with the majority of the bigger ones harkening back to the foundation of Israel. As Mr Netanyahu has found, moreover, governing parties have to reassemble coalitions frequently, and often have to rely increasingly on fringe parties in the course of a governing period.
While Mr Netanyahu has been driven even further to the right by the presence of orthodox The Jewish Home, Shas and United Torah Judaism parties in the thirty-fourth and previous governments of Israel he has headed, he may still be seen by centrist voters as a force for stability, considering the known unknowns represented by an opposition that could prove even more splintered than his coalition.
The election will tell whether an indictment against Mr Netanyahu is the straw that breaks the camel’s back as far as his personal candidacy is concerned. He has said he will not quit even if he is indicted, which he is not required to do until he has been convicted and the appeals process has been exhausted. “There will be nothing because there is nothing,” he often says.
The choice for voters will be between a continuity of seemingly corrupt but nominally stable leadership from Mr Netanyahu, or a new beginning characterised by uncertainty and likely instability.
Video: Israel’s Netanyahu denies corruption charges (Financial Times/YouTube)