Israel’s Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit is an unlikely villain in Benjamin Netanyahu’s corruption drama. The IDF Advocate General before Netanyahu appointed him Cabinet Secretary and then Attorney General, he is not a high-flyer with slick suits and soaring ambition, but a widely respected public servant committed to the rule of law. As such, Mandelblit’s recommendation last Thursday that Netanyahu be indicted for bribery, fraud and breach of trust packed a bigger punch.
Bibi says this is all a witch hunt, that Mandelblit has succumbed to relentless pressure from leftists intent on bringing him down. For opposition leaders, Benny Gantz and Yair Lapid, the indictment is a gift that powerfully reinforces their message that Bibi’s time is up.
What happens next? Netanyahu is innocent until proven guilty and does not have to resign. He can stand in the election and, if he pulls together a majority coalition, can become Prime Minister. After the election Netanyahu will be entitled to a hearing and then the Attorney General will make a final decision to indict. The case would proceed to a criminal trial and, if found guilty Netanyahu could be forced to resign, but this could take more than two years.
Netanyahu responded with emotive conspiratorial rhetoric, attacking the prosecution and the media. He has accused the public prosecutors of “taking an extreme line against me” and having a record of discriminating against people with right wing views. He slammed the media for brainwashing with “propaganda broadcasts against us”. On Monday night he unveiled his campaign slogan – ‘Netanyahu, Right, Strong’. In contrast he vilifies his opponents as weak leftists. In this imaginary world, he is the victim of a powerful, perpetual establishment conspiracy to elect a secular, left wing Government that will compromise on Israel’s basic security. That only he can protect the interests of the religious, pro-settlement right wing bloc. Bibi is right that this election is deeply polarised between pro and anti-Netanyahu camps, but he is just turning up the volume and lowering the tone.
Opinion polls taken in the week after the Attorney General’s announcement predict that Likud will still win 29 seats but, for the first time it has fallen to second place behind Gantz and Lapid’s Blue and White party who are predicted to win 37 seats. This is a stunning turnaround and hints at a slow but seismic shift away from the right towards the centre. In the last few days the polls are predicting either a dead heat or a wafer-thin majority for the anti-Bibi coalition.
With five weeks till polling day, Gantz and Lapid’s clearest route to power is to win over a chunk of moderate Likud voters appalled by the corruption cases and receptive to their joint ticket. Bibi is gambling that he can galvanise this group and terrify them with his dire warnings about what could happen if Gantz becomes Prime Minister. But it is a gamble that could backfire. Many of these voters admire Israel’s institutions, they respect Gantz as a former IDF Chief of Staff and appreciate the importance of the rule of law and an independent media. They may recoil at Netanyahu’s repeated attempts to whip up populist resentment and erode the foundations of the State that they cherish. Far from winning them over, Bibi may be accelerating their sense that Israeli politics needs someone else in charge.
Gantz and Lapid could emerge with the biggest party on 9 April, but unless their lead is substantial, they may struggle to form a coalition. One possible scenario is a national unity Government with Likud and Labour teaming up with Gantz and Lapid. For this to happen, Netanyahu would have to be pressured to resign as party leader to facilitate the merger, which is unlikely without a swift and ruthless palace coup to oust him. Netanyahu’s preferred option to avoid prison is to win the election and either convince the Knesset to grant him immunity or fight the case as Prime Minister and win. Even if Likud comes second, it could scrape together a coalition, bolstered by a decent performance from the right-wing parties and the ultra-orthodox.
As a Prime Minister possibly months away from a criminal trial, Bibi would be negotiating from the weakest possible position, forced to offer the best jobs and extortionate amounts of public funds for pet projects in return for guarantees that they will serve in his Government, even if his case goes to court.
Bibi is under immense personal pressure and facing strong opponents who match him easily with their security experience. His campaign rhetoric is increasingly divisive and toxic in a desperate attempt to fire up his base. This may be Bibi’s last act but one thing is certain, with the polls this close and his record of electoral success, it’s far too early to count him out.