Israel’s election campaign is about to enter its final phase. On 21 February party lists have to be published and the battle lines will be fixed. The mega-merger between Yair Lapid and Benny Gantz is significant, but may not generate enough support to beat Likud. Gantz’s momentum has stalled and the frisson of his first speech has fizzled away. The bizarre reality is that the only serious threat to Netanyahu, the one politician who can really damage his reputation and dent his popularity is none other than Benjamin Netanyahu himself.
Attorney General Avichai Mandleblit has long been the elephant in the room at Likud HQ. His decision whether or not to indict the Prime Minister, pending a hearing, is a game changer and expected within days. It is possible that Mandleblit will say he is not following the Police recommendation in three cases to indict the Prime Minister for bribery, fraud and breach of trust. In that scenario, Netanyahu will sail on smoothly to victory on 9 April. But that is unlikely. What we know about these cases – the gravity of the charges, the number of former Bibi aides who have become state witnesses and the detail of the Police recommendations – indicate that the Attorney General will recommend that Netanyahu be indicted. But the announcement is just the beginning.
Netanyahu long ago launched a fiery campaign to undermine the legitimacy of the legal process that involved criticizing his own Attorney General and accusing the police and prosecutors of being influenced by a cunning cabal of ‘leftists’ running a witch hunt to depose him. Likud voters have been hearing about these corruption cases for years and have arguably priced it in to their support for the party which has been rock solid for weeks. Every Israeli opinion poll has predicted Likud will emerge as the largest party with 29-32 seats.
The polls do appear to have stabilised. There is some movement between the centre and left parties but there has been almost no migration of right-wing voters to the centre. According to BICOM’s latest aggregate poll, Benjamin Netanyahu would have the numbers to put together a replica of his 2015 coalition with a small governing majority. This was helped by Kulanu leader Moshe Kahlon’s screeching u-turn last week when he said he would join a Netanyahu coalition, even if the Prime Minister has been indicted. Kulanu are predicted to win just 5 seats, but they will be vital to help Netanyahu over the line with a majority of 61 or more in the 120 seat Knesset.
The decision to indict Netanyahu is a game changer for three reasons. Firstly, the corruption charges become reality. Once the Attorney General utters those words Netanyahu will be a different proposition in the eyes of voters. Even if he wins the election, he will be weighed down by the heavy baggage of a criminal case. Distracted and completely consumed by the exhausting and emotional struggle to avoid prison.
Secondly, there is the evidence. Although this is not supposed to happen, there is the strong possibility that key documents and audio recordings will immediately leak to the media. How will Likud voters react as explicit documents are published and recordings are broadcast providing details about all the things Netanyahu has denied for months? The opposition will have a field day and this will fuel a furious final phase of the campaign. The election result could ultimately hinge on whether 200,000 Likud voters feel disappointed enough to switch their support to Gantz or Lapid. The leaks from the investigations could push them over the edge.
Finally, there is the question of how Netanyahu himself behaves. Will he hold it together and maintain a high level of competence or will more mistakes creep in. His performance last week in Warsaw was replete with uncharacteristic misjudgements. Leaking a film of Arab leaders criticising Iran caused a furious backlash. His comment about Polish complicity in the Holocaust spiralled into a diplomatic crisis and eroded the much touted achievement of new alliances with East European states. His newly appointed Foreign Minister, Yisrael Katz, deployed the tact and delicacy of a drunken elephant. The Visegrad conference in Jerusalem was supposed to highlight Bibi’s skills as a statesman. Its cancellation showed up his failings and shined a spotlight on the deeply unpleasant compromises he has made to build alliances with authoritarian nationalists who suffer selective amnesia about the Holocaust to bolster their political base.
A planned summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin may take place next week, likely scheduled to reset the agenda after the Attorney General makes his announcement. But that meeting carries risks. A Russian commitment to Israeli security will be valuable but Putin is unlikely to provide any useful guarantees to limit Iranian forces in Syria or a commitment towards Israeli freedom of action against those forces. The photo will look good but the content will be weak.
In the next six weeks Netanyahu, the accomplished campaigner, will utilise every ounce of his immense experience and skill to win this election. But he faces the mother of all battles against the emerging evidence of his own malign behaviour and the spiteful rhetoric fed by his own worst instincts.