As Netanyahu rails against 'witch hunt,' some Israelis see end of an era

Why We Wrote This

What does it mean for a democracy to have a leader indicted for corruption? That’s a question being asked in Israel, as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, a political survivor, heads to elections.

Dan Balilty/AP/File
A 2015 campaign poster with the image of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sat among ballot papers at his party's election headquarters, in Tel Aviv, in March of that year. New elections are less than 40 days away.

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“He’s become King Bibi for a lot of people,” says a flower vendor in Tel Aviv. “But I am hearing from friends … that they are getting tired of him.” In light of their long-serving prime minister’s indictment last week – involving fraud, bribery, and breach of trust – Israelis are beginning to contemplate the end of the decade-long reign of Benjamin Netanyahu.

Mr. Netanyahu, a survivor, blames his problems on a “witch hunt” by media outlets, opposition lawmakers, and a complicit police force and attorney general. That’s a narrative his party faithful seem to support. Even if his Likud party manages to win – beating back a challenge from a popular centrist general – and form the next government, analysts say, it’s unlikely Netanyahu would be able to remain premier amid a trial. Still, supporters and critics say, normal rules don’t seem to apply.

“[I]t says something about Israeli democracy that it functions despite this,” says a political science professor in Jerusalem. “It will be interesting to see if some on the right of right will rally and say ‘Yes, he is the victim,’ or if some will say, ‘No more – we cannot let his survival sink Israeli democracy.’ ”

If Benjamin Netanyahu, a silver-tongued tough guy and master political survivor, has succeeded in one thing in his past decade as prime minister of Israel, it’s in making it almost impossible for his citizens – even his fiercest critics – to imagine the country without him at the helm.

But last week, a lengthy investigation produced what promises to be a 57-page indictment against him in three cases involving fraud, bribery, and breach of trust. And heading into a general election in April, a new political rival has emerged in the form of a popular general whose new centrist party, Blue and White, has surged ahead of Mr. Netanyahu’s ruling Likud party in the polls.

Even as Netanyahu launches a fight for his political life with what analysts say is a one-two punch strategy of racism toward Israel’s Arab citizens and false statements about his rivals and the media, Israelis are beginning to contemplate the twilight of his reign.

“Fake cases” was Netanyahu’s summation of the announced indictments, and on Monday, to cheers at a campaign rally, he led a chant of “Bibi or Tibi.” Bibi is his own nickname, and Tibi is Ahmed Tibi, a long-time Arab Knesset member and popular target of the right.

To improve his chances at coalition-building after the vote, Netanyahu also arranged for the ideological heirs of an extreme right-wing party, once outlawed as racist, to join a religious faction, a move that has been condemned across the spectrum in Israel and among American Jews.

Even if Likud manages to win in the April Knesset election and form the next government, it’s unlikely Netanyahu would be able to remain premier once a trial against him begins, analysts say.

Nevertheless there is no law blocking him from doing so. And as both his supporters and critics point out ­– and as towering campaign billboards featuring a photo of Netanyahu and President Trump shaking hands next to the words “Netanyahu, In A Different League” imply – normal rules don’t seem to apply in his case.

Shift on the right

“He’s become King Bibi for a lot of people,” says Yuval Deleeuw, the owner of a flower shop and café in Tel Aviv. He has never supported Netanyahu and says he will most likely vote for the Blue and White party. “But I am hearing from friends who vote Likud that they are getting tired of him, and feel like it’s time for a change.”

Yehuda Carmel, an entrepreneur from the coastal city of Netanya who has usually voted for right-wing parties, has this message for Netanyahu: Time’s up.

“I think he became corrupt and it’s no longer fitting for him to remain in office. And yes, he has had some diplomatic achievements – but recently the failures have piled up in many directions, despite the stories he tries to sell us as the master of international relations and Mr. Security,” Mr. Carmel says. “I think he’s lost his place, and at the end of the day he’ll end up in jail.”

He, too, says he is planning to vote for Blue and White.

Ariel Schalit/AP
Retired Israeli military chief Benny Gantz, (l.), smiles with Yair Lapid, head of the Yesh Atid party, as they launch a joint list for national elections in April, in Tel Aviv, Feb. 21, 2019. The centrist challengers to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu have moved ahead of him in recent polls.

According to a poll Tuesday by Walla, an Israeli news site, the Blue and White party is leading Likud by five seats in parliament. The party, named for the colors of Israel’s flag, is led by Benny Gantz, a retired general and political newcomer whose most recent job was military chief of staff. Mr. Gantz is joined by Yair Lapid, who merged his popular centrist party in the Knesset, to create a united front against Netanyahu.

Netanyahu says the choice is between “a strong government led by me, or a weak leftist government of Lapid and Gantz.”

Despite Netanyahu’s description, the pair swing more hawk than dove and have promoted the message that, unlike Netanyahu, they will put the country’s interests first, not their own. Gantz and Mr. Lapid are both the sons of Holocaust survivors who, the two say they recently found out, once shared a room in the Budapest ghetto.

Mistakes under pressure

Akiva Eldar, a veteran analyst, says Netanyahu feels the pressure and is making mistakes, especially the political lifeline he threw to the followers of the late Meir Kahane, an American immigrant rabbi and ideological father of the Jewish militant fringe-right who called Arabs “dogs” and advocated expelling Palestinians.

“He is now acting like a wounded animal in the corner and fighting for his life,” says Mr. Eldar, a columnist for Al-Monitor. His main mistake, he says, was “to bring into his own fold the Kahanists, something even AIPAC [the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee] cannot abide, and that’s saying a lot because they usually are able to accept anything.”

Several American Jewish groups condemned the merger of the far-right Jewish Home party with the extremist Jewish Power as normalizing the latter’s racist, anti-Arab ideology. Jewish Power is the ideological heir of Kahane’s Kach party, which was banned from the Knesset in 1988 as undemocratic and racist.

Netanyahu has blamed his legal problems on what he charges is a left-wing “witch hunt” by media outlets bent on destroying him, opposition lawmakers, and a complicit police force and attorney general doing the left wing’s bidding.

It’s a narrative his party faithful seem to support.

Eitan Sherman says the charges are exaggerated. Last election he voted for Jewish Home, but this time, because he sees Netanyahu needs support, he will be voting Likud.

“I want Likud to stay strong and people are out to destroy him,” he says from the upholstery shop in Tel Aviv he has owned for 40 years. Too much has been made of the corruption charges, he says, adding that, “It’s not like he took envelopes stuffed with cash,” an allusion to a corruption case that took down Netanyahu’s predecessor, Ehud Olmert.

Says Eldar, the columnist, of one indictment alleging Netanyahu took gifts from a wealthy friend in exchange for favors in office: “He has corrupted Israeli society, so much so that today people think he is a king and it’s okay that he takes for himself.”

Impact on democracy?

So what do Netanyahu’s woes mean for Israel’s political system?

“To have a prime minister in a democracy with indictments is very serious. But it says something about Israeli democracy that it functions despite this,” says Gayil Talshir, a senior lecturer at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. “It will be interesting to see if some on the right will rally and say, ‘Yes, he is the victim,’ or if some will say, ‘No more – we cannot let his survival sink Israeli democracy.’”

Dan Shadur is the director of a new documentary, “King Bibi,” that traces Netanyahu’s path from his upbringing in the Philadelphia suburbs as the less-favored son of Benzion Netanyahu, an Israeli history professor who always felt himself the outsider. He says Netanyahu was key in bringing a previously unseen level of “toxic discourse” to Israeli politics.

“A lot of people know he’s lying. And they don’t mind,” he says. “He is seen as our representative, fighting the establishment – even if it’s an imaginary establishment since Likud is in power – but he’s our guy there and he will show them.”

Mr. Shadur says Israel now seems to be at a turning point, “But I just don’t know where we are going. Something deep is changing in the way we perceive truth and way we look at ideas and describe them and the way we talk to each other. There’s a big change, and Trump and Netanyahu are people who are using it.… It’s a change where the image is more important than the substance.”

Israel after Netanyahu?

“I think Israel is much bigger than Netanyahu. Netanyahu has sucked the oxygen out of Israeli society and democracy for a decade now, and to a very large degree, politics have been about him,” says Anshell Pfeffer, author of “Bibi: The Turbulent Life and Times of Benjamin Netanyahu.”

“I think Israel will not only overcome this period but it will be very healthy for Israelis to deal with the real issues finally.”

That includes revisiting peace efforts with the Palestinians, which Netanayahu has resisted, as well as social and economic issues, that Mr. Pfeffer argues have been subsumed by the question of whether or not they help Netanyahu. “We have not been asking the real question: what is good for Israeli society?”

Pfeffer sees Netanyahu less as a father figure for the nation than a father figure for the right, a right that respects him and is increasingly worried that without him around, they might cede power.

“Israeli society will need a recovery period after Netanyahu. Probably it will be something incremental – it cannot be black-and-white change, but something in the middle,” says Eldar. “We need to get used to a situation to be without a father and leave the warm home we had. Maybe after that we will get used to a situation that Israel can be without Bibi, that the country can go on without him,” he says.

Michal Levy, a Tel Aviv shopkeeper who used to vote for the left-wing Meretz party but will now be casting her ballot for the centrist Blue and White, says, “I want to vote for the party that has the best chance of beating him.” 

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