Israeli PM Binyamin Netanyahu faces hazardous political hurdle

Even cusp of yet another election victory, the Likud leader is mired in controversy

According to the polls, Binyamin Netanyahu is almost certain to be elected to a fifth term as Israel's prime minister when the country goes to the polls on April 9th. However, King Bibi, who has dominated the Israeli political scene for more than two decades, faces a major obstacle that threatens to wreck his illustrious political career.

Next month, Israel's attorney general Avichai Mandelblit will decide whether to indict Netanyahu, pending a hearing, in three separate corruption cases.

Israel’s state prosecutor last month recommended indicting Netanyahu for bribery charges in two of the investigations, known as Cases 2,000 and 4,000, and breach of trust in the third affair, dubbed Case 1,000.

Case 2,000 centres on an allegation that Netanyahu asked the publisher of the Yediot Aharonot newspaper for positive coverage in exchange for help in reining in a rival publication, the popular, pro-Netanyahu free newspaper Yisrael Hayom, owned by American casino mogul Sheldon Adelson, and a close friend of the prime minister at the time.

The left-wing demonstrators know that our team always wins, so they are trying to pressure the referee to take Messi out of the game

Case 4,000 involves suspicions that Netanyahu ,when he also served as communications minister between 2015-17, ensured financial benefits amounting to hundreds of millions of euro for Bezeq, Israel's largest telecommunications company, which is owned by Shaul Elovitch, in return for favourable coverage for Netanyahu and his wife Sara on the popular news website Walla!, also owned by Elovitch.

In Case 1,000, Netanyahu is alleged to have received gifts worth €230,000 from the Israeli-born Hollywood producer Arnon Milchan and other wealthy friends. The gifts included cigars, pink champagne and jewellery.

Most commentators believe that Netanyahu’s prime motive on Christmas Eve when he announced the snap April election was the hope that such a move would put the legal proceedings against him on hold.

But the attorney general announced he was expediting the process, meaning the pre-indictment hearing will be held before the election takes place.

Netanyahu made it clear that he had no intention of resigning, accusing the judiciary of joining forces with the opposition to bring him down.

“For years, the left-wing demonstrators and the media have been applying thuggish and inhuman pressure on the attorney general for him to indict me in any event, even when there’s nothing,” he said.

“They are trying to force the attorney general to intervene crudely in the elections by summoning me to a hearing, when it is known in advance that the hearing cannot be completed before the elections. They know that our team always wins, so they are trying to pressure the referee to take Messi out of the game.”

The head of the opposition, Labour's Shelly Yachimovich, said that Netanyahu's "violent statements" enjoining the law-enforcement agencies to leave him alone were no different from the statements made by any other person facing severe criminal suspicions, but as prime minister he holds the power to bring down with him the institutions upholding the rule of law.

Polls show that even a criminal indictment will fail to significantly affect voter intentions, maybe shifting a few seats from Likud to smaller right-wing parties

The graft allegations have failed to harm Netanyahu’s popularity and, if anything, have boosted his standing with his right-wing base, who believe his claim that he is the victim of a conspiracy by the leftist Israeli elites.

Polls predict that Netanyahu's Likud party will again emerge as the biggest party, winning about 30 of the 120 seats in the Knesset parliament – the same as they have today and significantly ahead of all the other parties.

Can anyone stop Netanyahu?

The only figure who come close to Netanyahu when asked by pollsters for the most suitable candidate for prime minister is Benny Gantz, Israel's former army commander. Gantz heads a new centrist party called Israel Resilience, but has yet to outline his policy guidelines.

The left is in disarray, and despite talk of the need for a grand anti-Netanyahu alliance among the left and centre parties, such efforts have failed to gain momentum.

Barring a dramatic, unforeseen development, Israel is facing another Netanyahu coalition of right-wing and religious parties, probably together with some centrist factions.

Polls show that even a criminal indictment will fail to significantly affect voter intentions, maybe shifting a few seats from Likud to smaller right-wing parties.

What remains unclear is how Netanyahu’s potential coalition partners will respond to an indictment, particularly if it includes bribery.

Will they be ready to endorse a candidate for prime minister who is facing a potentially long and complicated legal battle in the courts, plunging Israel into an uncharted constitutional predicament?

Almost all the party heads have scores to settle with Netanyahu. They will only give a definitive answer if and when an indictment is issued and the details of the corruption charges are revealed.

Though reluctant to talk about it in public, politicians, including those in the Likud and the other right-wing parties, are already jockeying for position, ahead of the possibility that the end of the Netanyahu era may be closer than the polls predict.