It’s become something of a truism that because the news cycle in Israel changes so rapidly, what was a central tenet of belief one day is completely irrelevant the next. Yet even the most cynical observers must have been surprised by the torrent of allegations now raining down on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, completely transforming the political landscape in the near to distant future. The cases now open against him and his associates include, in a nutshell, receiving bribes from wealthy colleagues in exchange for political favors, meeting with Yedioth Ahronoth publisher None Mozes in the hopes of bribing him for more favorable coverage by passing legislation against news freebie Yisrael Hayom, involvement of Netanyahu’s cousin and lawyer in the purchase of ThyssenKrupp submarines from Germany, and plans to give financial incentives to telecommunications company Bezeq in exchange for positive news coverage on Bezeq’s new site, Walla. For many, the question is no longer a matter of “if” but ”when;” there seems to be a growing consensus Netanyahu may have finally backed himself into a corner from which he is unlikely to escape unscathed, with even the possibility of criminal charges being pressed against him. In the tradition of the prime minister’s favorite catchphrase, “there is nothing, so there will be nothing,” Likud members have so far closed ranks behind Netanyahu, throwing around inflammatory language and insinuations about shadowy cabals seeking to end his premiership through unsavory and illegal means.
Culture Minister Miri Regev has mockingly dismissed the allegations, while Tourism Minister Yariv Levin darkly hinted of a “coup” being staged against the prime minister. Not to be outdone by his colleagues’ overzealousness, MK Miki Zohar has exclaimed that Netanyahu’s so-called persecution at the hands of the media and police force is reminiscent of the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. Adding fuel to the fire of conspiracy is the revelation that an investigator and one of the judges presiding over Case 4000 (dealing with Bezeq) ostensibly coordinated the extended detention of four suspects. Coalition partners like Finance Minister and Kulanu Chairman Moshe Kahlon have been a bit more circumspect, avoiding such unruly behavior while claiming they will not exit the coalition until Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit has made a final decision.
Whatever the tactic, however, the end results are the same: no one is planning to jump ship, lest the government collapse and force new elections. Many coalition partners, including the Ultra-Orthodox, worry that future governments may not be nearly as accommodating in their policies, creating a present situation in which parties hold each other hostage with legislation that is often highly unpopular outside the narrow interests of their constituents. Behind closed doors, those partners and Likudnik politicians hoping to replace Netanyahu may bristle at the prime minister’s harping on about being the victim of some grand conspiracy, secretly readying themselves for the battle of succession that is liable to follow, but for the time being, there’s little they can do but throw their support behind him.
Members of the coalition now find themselves in an unenviable situation: attacking the prime minister and pulling out of the government risks invoking the wrath of a right-wing electorate that will lay the blame on them in the event of loss of power, while keeping silent will solidify Netanyahu’s grasp at the expense of possible successors. The manner in which the right’s base has come out in defense of the prime minister, going so far as to infer that “Deep State” forces are out to unseat him, hints that Netanyahu has been wildly successful in making himself an indispensable leader, not only to the electorate, but in the eyes of many right-wing politicians as well. So far, his narrative as the right’s standard-bearer seems to be holding. A number of polls released show Likud’s power dipping only slightly from its current status at 30 mandates, likely also buoyed by President Donald Trump’s recent speeding-up of the American embassy move to Jerusalem to coincide with Israel’s seventieth Independence Day celebrations. It’s easy to dismiss these numbers as the result of a cult of personality built around him and reinforced over the course of many years, but Ha’aretz editor-in-chief Aluf Benn rightly points out that for some Israelis, in particular those who take a dim view of the current administration, Netanyahu’s continued rule has more to do with his ability to maintain a semblance of stability, and less about fealty to him or his party.
While some voters have bought into a paranoid worldview that sees these indictments in purely conspiratorial terms, many others have simply made peace with the possibility of Netanyahu’s apparent weakness for corruption, seeing it as a kind of trade-off for keeping the country afloat. The left’s inability to put forth or coalesce around a particular leader seen as a worthy challenger to the prime minister doesn’t help matters either. But Mandelblit cannot base his conclusions on whether or not Netanyahu’s removal from power is detrimental to the well-being of the state out of fear that whoever replaces him may not be as equipped to handle the rigorous nature of the position. If a criminal conviction is handed down, a collapse of the government may likely follow along with new elections. Whether due to Netanyahu’s grasp on the party leadership or a firm belief that the investigations don’t hold any water, Likud and its allies seem to have no apparent contingency plan for a post-Bibi era. The more his allies internalize him as irreplaceable, the more trouble they will have if and when he’s finally driven from power, creating a power vacuum that is liable to become a free-for-all between various parts of the right and within the Likud itself.
Even in the event that no conviction is forthcoming in the near future (recall that a sitting prime minister is not obligated to resign even after being indicted), the opposition, along with like-minded civil society allies and left-leaning media outlets, will make a point to relentlessly discuss the accusations in every available forum. Their primary target won’t necessarily be Likud, but may seek instead to focus their attention on the weak links in the coalition, starting with Finance Minister Kahlon. Kahlon has long prided himself on being the current coalition’s “responsible adult” and the representative of a more reigned-in form of Israeli conservatism (even if his actual track record has been decidedly mixed) that has long been excised from Likud. Yet the longer the investigations continue the more the stink of corruption could end up affecting all politicians and parties who refuse to disassociate from Netanyahu, painting figures like Kahlon, Education Minister Naftali Bennett, and Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman as complicit partners in his misbehavior and exposing them as cynical leaders more interested in maintaining their seats of power.
The possible defeat of the right-wing bloc at the polls will not come in the form of a crushing loss of mandates; it’s unlikely that a huge sea-shift will occur in voting patterns returning the party to pre-2009 conditions. Even under the worst of circumstances, Likud will retain a large bloc of votes representing the core base of its most loyal constituents. But the right doesn’t have to go into free fall in order to lose power. It simply needs to be robbed of a few precious mandates at its margins. Likud loyalists angered at Netanyahu’s ouster or by lack of faith in his successor may choose to stay home on Election Day to show their dissatisfaction or out of sheer apathy, with some citing disgust at the party’s enabling of corruption as the deciding factor. Intra-party squabbling between Likud members jockeying for a leadership role, along with smaller right-wing parties competing for Likid voters, may sap necessary time and energy needed to formulate a successful campaign. Lack of faith in Likud may draw votes necessary to maintain its lead as the biggest party towards junior coalition partners whose leaders are vying to lead the right. And center-right Israelis who previously cast their votes for moderate candidates like Kahlon may too grow weary of supporting supposedly centrist politicians who have propped up figures like Netanyahu, shifting their votes left to Yesh Atid’s Yair Lapid. Netanyahu and his cohorts may put on a brave face in the hope of distracting a skeptical public, but no amount of confidence can compensate for a lack of preparedness if their worst fears are ultimately realized.