Analysis: Netanyahu indictment throws Israeli poll into flux

Israel’s general election campaign has been thrown into flux by legal and political developments which may put Benjamin Netanyahu’s long-term future as prime minister at risk.

On Thursday, attorney general Avichai Mandelblit announced he was indicting the Israeli leader in relation to three police investigations into alleged corruption.

The indictments – for fraud, bribery and breach of trust – are pending a pre-trial hearing. Mandelblit will give the final go-ahead for the indictments following that hearing. Netanyahu vehemently denies any wrongdoing and has repeatedly said he will not resign.

Mandelblit’s announcement followed a last-ditch appeal by Netanyahu’s Likud party to the Supreme Court to prevent the announcement. Its petition argued: “This is an unprecedented case since the establishment of the state. Great caution is required in terms of preventing intervention in the election campaign.” The appeal was rejected by three judges earlier today.

It is the first time in Israeli history that a sitting prime minister has been charged with a criminal offence. Ehud Olmert resigned the premiership in 2008 while the attorney general was still mulling the indictment which eventually saw him serve jail time.

“This is hugely significant — for the prime minister and for all of us,” Suzie Navot, a professor of constitutional and parliamentary law suggested. “This was an investigation conducted with caution, with restraint — some would say too much restraint, over too long. The evidence was checked and re-checked.”

Netanyahu is embroiled in three corruption probes.

In the first, “Case 1000”, the prime minister is accused of accepting gifts – including champagne, cigars and jewellery – totalling around £300,000 from wealthy businessmen in return for advancing their interests. Netanyahu’s former chief of staff, Ari Harrow, is a state witness in the case.

In the second case, “Case 2000”, Netanyahu is accused of bribing Arnon Mozes, the owner of the Yediot Ahronot newspaper, and offering to help restrict the circulation of its rival, Israel Hayom, in return for better coverage. Israel Hayom is owned by the US billionaire and strong Netanyahu supporter Sheldon Adelson. Again, Harrow is a witness.

In the third case, “Case 4000”, involves accusations that Netanyahu used his position to advance the interests of Bezeq, Israel’s largest telecommunications company. Police suspect that Shaul Elovitch, owner of the Walla news site and a key shareholder of Bezeq, swayed coverage of Netanyahu on the news site in exchange for regulatory benefits for Bezeq.The prime minister served as acting communications minister until May 2017.

Last February, Israeli police recommended the prime minister be charged with bribery, fraud and breach of trust in Case 1000 and 2000. A similar recommendation came in Case 4000 – the most serious of the probes – in December. The attorney general has since been reviewing the evidence to weight his decision on whether to issue indictments.

He has opted to charge Netanyahu with fraud and breach of trust in Cases 1000 and 2000, and bribery in Case 4000, thus only partially accepting the recommendations of the police and state prosecutors, but nonetheless landing the prime minister in political and legal peril six weeks before the general election.

Netanyahu and Likud have argued that Mandelblit should delay any announcement until after the April general election because the indicted prime minister would have no opportunity to clear himself at a pre-trial hearing before voters render their verdict. Opposition parties, by contrast, have suggested it is unthinkable that voters should go to the polls not knowing if Netanyahu is about to be indicted.

A complex legal process, which could drag out many months and potentially up to two years, will now follow. This will involve a pre-trial hearing; a final decision by the attorney general on whether to indict the prime minister; a district court trial if an indictment is pressed; and a potential appeal to the Supreme Court were Netanyahu to be found guilty. Legally, the prime minister could remain in office at least until a verdict in the district court trial (losing a Supreme Court appeal would automatically terminate his premiership and government).

It is, however, politics that may be more important. Beyond any impact the indictments might have on the polls and the outcome of the general election (see below), there is also the question of how long, were he to be re-elected, coalition allies would stand by him as the legal process unfolds. Some have indicated that they might stick with him until a final verdict, others have adopted a more ambivalent position. Moshe Kahlon, head of the centre-right Kulanu party and current finance minister, for instance, had insisted he would not serve under Netanyahu were he indicted, but he has recently appeared to soften that stance. Kahlon’s position is potentially pivotal in that it is difficult to see, on current polling, how the prime minister would assemble a coalition in the Knesset without Kulanu MKs.

Netanyahu’s legal problems have been compounded by the emergence of a strong centrist challenge, led by three former military chiefs.

Last week, it was announced that ex-IDF chief of staff Benny Gantz – whose Israel Resilience party was formed barely two months ago but has emerged as the principal challenger to Netanyahu – had agreed to an electoral alliance with Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid party. The two centrist parties’ Blue and White joint slate is buttressed by the backing of two other former heads of the Israeli armed force, Moshe Ya’alon, whose Telem party merged with Israel Resilience last month, and Gabi Ashkenazi.

Under the agreement, Gantz would serve as prime minister first if the alliance emerges victorious on 9 April, but would hand the premiership over to Lapid at mid-term. Such rotation agreements have occurred before, with Shimon Peres and Yitzhak Shamir effectively sharing the premiership after the formation of a national unity government in the mid-1980s.

Polls released after the announcement of the deal between the four men showed Blue and White – which boasts its patriotic credentials by taking its name from the Israeli flag – taking the lead from Likud. One poll showed the challengers besting Likud by 36-26 seats in the Knesset; the second by a narrower 36-30 margin. Nonetheless, it is in the first time in the election campaign – which was triggered in late December – that the previously dominant Likud party had slipped to second place.

The polls showed other parties – including the centre-left Labor party – trailing with single figures, as voters appeared to congregate behind the two principal contenders.

However, Netanyahu’s hopes of forming a government were by no means quashed by the polls which showed that, together, his right-wing and religious bloc would win 60-61 seats, while the centrist, centre-left and Arab parties garnered 60-59 seats.

Mandelblit’s announcement may, however, change all that. A poll published by the Times of Israel asking voters their intentions were Netanyahu to be indicted suggested Likud would take a further big hit, with the right-wing bloc potentially unable to carve out a Knesset majority.

More than one in four Likud voters said they would abandon the party were Netanyahu to be indicted. The poll showed Likud dropping from 29 seats currently to 25 seats. The Blue and White alliance, however, would potentially open up a commanding lead, surging from 36 to 44 seats. Overall, the right-wing bloc would drop to 55 seats, while the Blue and White alliance would be able to win a Knesset majority with the backing of Labor and two of either Meretz, Kulanu, Yisrael Beytenu or the ultra-Orthodox parties.

Underlying the headline poll figures were findings suggesting voters do not accept Netanyahu’s oft-trumpeted response to the corruption allegations – that he has done nothing wrong and is the victim of a left-wing and media-led plot to drive him from office.

Only 35 per cent of voters agreed with the statement: “The investigations into Benjamin Netanyahu are petty and politically motivated. They know he will win the election, so are trying to find other ways to get him out of office.”

By contrast, 47 percent said they agreed with a second statement suggesting that the allegations were “extremely serious and should not be taken lightly,” and that if Netanyahu is indicted, “he should immediately step down.”

Voters’ patience with the long-serving prime minister – after a brief two-year term between 1996-8, Netanyahu returned to power in 2009 – also appears to be wearing thin. Less than one-fifth of respondents said they were happy with his leadership and wanted him to continue. Fifty-five percent said the prime minister should go, while a further 26 percent said they believed it was “time for a change” but couldn’t see a viable alternative.

Head-to-head polls show that Gantz and Netanyahu are in a virtual dead heat in terms of who Israelis would prefer to see as prime minister. It is the first time since Netanyahu became prime minister in 2009 that he has fought an election where he has not dominated potential challengers for his job in the polls.

As analysts have suggested, Blue and White’s strength appears to come from two principal sources. First, by assembling a team of three former military men, it appears to be neutralising the political card that Netanyahu has repeatedly played at election time: that only he has the security credentials to keep Israelis safe.

Second, in a bid for right-leaning voters, the alliance has deliberately skated over divisive issues such as the Palestinian peace process. Instead, it has based its appeal on a call for Israelis to unite, and cast Netanyahu as a divisive figure threatening to rip the country’s social fabric asunder for his own political purposes.

Such charges will be aided by the prime minister’s hugely controversial and widely condemned decision last week to broker an electoral pact between his former coalition partner, Jewish Home, and the far-right Otzma Yehudit party. The pro-settler Jewish Home has been hit politically by the departure of its two most prominent leaders, coalition ministers Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked, whose newly formed New Right party aims to appeal to secular Israelis. Netanyahu feared the Jewish Home would fail alone to clear the 3.25 percent electoral threshold parties need to win seats in the Knesset, thus weakening his ability to put together a majority coalition. A deal with the far-right, however, may enable the combined parties to enter the Knesset.

Nonetheless, it is also worth remembering that Netanyahu – the Houdini of Israeli politics – has sometimes performed best when he is fighting as the underdog. In 2015, with Labor threatening to unseat him, the prime minister veered sharply to the right, “cannibalising” the support of his right-wing coalition parties, and securing a come-from-behind electoral surprise.

However, four years ago he was not weighed down by indictments for corruption and three former IDF generals attempting to turf him from office.