Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has had a most impressive run. He will soon be the longest serving prime minister in the state’s history. He has led the country to extraordinary economic growth, legendary military and intelligence status and impressive foreign policy achievement — including meaningful improvement in relations with many Arab neighbors. He has also pursued some very public and what appear to be genuinely friendly, personal relationships with a wide array of international leaders, including presidents Donald Trump of the United States and Vladimir Putin of Russia.
Perhaps most important of all, Netanyahu is credited with helping to develop a national sense of stability, confidence and calm that belies the underlying foment of mistrust, intrigue, back room deals and abuses of power that have all but consumed much of the discussion within and about the country over the past many months.
Indeed, until recently, Netanyahu seemed politically invincible. Notwithstanding corruption investigations, domestic economic unrest and the threat of a looming deal with the Palestinians, Netanyahu, his party and his governing coalition were viewed as a shoo-in for re-election in the April 9 elections he called.
Enter Avichai Mandelblit, Israel’s attorney general, who last week announced his plan to indict the prime minister on bribery and other abuse of office charges. The Mandelblit announcement was not a big surprise. And at another time, the announcement might have been viewed as business as usual for a prime minister who has been under investigation for alleged illegal acts for several years, and for a country that has seen many politicians accused of corruption, with several of them going to jail.
But in this case — perhaps because of the wide array of claimed illegal activity, and the questionable flow of favors and abuse of power being reported — the Israeli people may have had enough. While pro-Netanyahu observers have dismissed the work of Mandelblit as motivated by political animus and the desire to undermine the democratic process, it was Netanyahu himself who decided to try to blunt the prosecutor’s momentum and call for elections some seven months earlier than required by law.
Clearly, the gambit failed. Or did it?
Because of Israel’s parliamentary system and unique brand of politics, even a wounded Netanyahu and his Likud party might be in the best position to form the next government. His strongest challenger, political newbie and former Israel Defense Forces chief of staff Benny Gantz, has surged in the polls, but his proposed center-left coalition might not be able to find enough partners to govern the country, even if given the opportunity to do so.
That’s a distressing scenario.
That the public could essentially express a clear preference for no one and Netanyahu would still come out on top might bode well for Netanyahu’s record reign of leadership, but it doesn’t do much to advance a healthy body politic.