Unlike our own president, Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu has never mused that he could stand in the middle of Ben Yehuda Street and shoot someone without losing any supporters. But, in a development Donald Trump is no doubt watching closely, Netanyahu is about to find out what effect being charged with corruption has on one’s base. Israeli attorney general Avichai Mandelblit recommended on Thursday that Netanyahu be indicted on various charges of fraud, bribery and breach of trust in three corruption cases in which the prime minister is implicated, introducing a new wild card into a general election campaign with just 40 days to go.
In a 57-page letter to Netanyahu’s lawyers, Mandelblit said he should be charged with fraud and breach of trust in Case 1000, in which the prime minister and his wife Sara are accused of taking hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of gifts from wealthy benefactors in exchange for political favors. He is to face the same charges in Case 2000, as well as bribery and breach-of-trust charges in Case 4000, both of which revolve around deals he allegedly sought with the owners of media outlets to trade favorable coverage of him for regulatory or legislative changes that would advantage their businesses.
Mandelblit’s letter does not mean Netanyahu has been formally charged yet; Netanyahu’s legal team will have an opportunity to present a defense and make a case for dropping the charges before Mandelblit makes a final decision on whether or not to indict him. That process could take weeks or months. If he is tried and convicted of these crimes, Netanyahu could face serious prison time, including up to ten years for the bribery charge. Nonetheless, he is not legally required to step down and has rejected calls for his resignation from other Israeli political figures.
The recommendation was not unexpected, but has ignited a huge controversy, coming just six weeks before the early elections Netanyahu had called for April 9, which his Likud party was on track to win, giving him a fifth term and the title of Israel’s longest-serving prime minister. In a number of voluble public statements, featuring strikingly Trumpian language, Netanyahu denounced the corruption probe as a “witch hunt,” part of a conspiracy to undermine and overthrow his government. He repeated these allegations after Thursday’s announcement, calling the legal case against him a “house of cards” that would disappear as soon as it failed to cost him reelection. Right-wing media has characterized it as the work of the Israeli “deep state” (Mandelblit and Robert Mueller could form a support group).
Netanyahu’s conspiratorial rhetoric — suggesting he’s the victim of an elaborate plot perpetrated by the media and a phantasmic “left wing,” encompassing everyone who wants him out of office — is standard operating procedure for a demagogic politician desperate to hold onto power. But the controversy extends beyond Israel’s right-wing fever swamps. Netanyahu has argued that it is unjust to begin a legal process against him that wouldn’t conclude until after the elections — passing over the fact that he chose the timing of these elections, deliberately, in an effort to get reelected before his legal troubles caught up to him. Still, Israelis will have to vote under the cloud of these indictments, not knowing whether the leader of one major party is about to be found guilty or innocent of multiple crimes.
Critics of Mandelblit’s decision to recommend charges say it represents an unprecedented intrusion into the democratic process by unelected officials in the judicial system: Israel has sent a former prime minister to jail before (Ehud Olmert), but this is the first time a head of government has faced charges while in office. Yet the attorney general has been in an impossible situation all along, as any decision — to indict or not — would read as a political choice and infuriate some segment of the Israeli body politic. The notion that Mandelblit is making a partisan choice here is hardly credible, his defenders argue, as he has a solidly right-wing ideological pedigree and previously served as Netanyahu’s cabinet secretary.
Irrespective of whether it was correct or justified, Mandelblit’s decision will inevitably have political consequences. A Times of Israel poll projected that a recommendation to indict could cost Likud four seats in the next Knesset, not necessarily causing it to lose but making it that much harder for it to form a coalition. Netanyahu’s party is now facing a stronger competition in this campaign after his leading rivals, former military chief of staff Benny Gantz and Yesh Atid party chairman Yair Lapid, agreed to form a centrist alliance called Kahol Lavan (“Blue and White”). Previously, Kahol Lavan had suggested it would be willing to form a government with Likud, but Gantz said on Thursday that he was no longer willing to join a coalition led by Netanyahu.
It will be extremely difficult, however, for Blue and White to cobble together the 61 Knesset seats it would need to form a coalition of its own without Likud or without violating the Israeli political taboo against bringing the majority-Arab, non-Zionist left-wing parties into government. Lapid has denied that his coalition would include the Arab parties, but Netanyahu is already making hay out of the notion that they would empower these parties, which he regularly characterizes as spies and traitors bent on destroying the state of Israel. Clearly, Lapid and Gantz would prefer that Netanyahu resign or be ousted so that they could caucus with a post-Netanyahu Likud party, but that could also give the prime minister another form of leverage with his right-wing allies in keeping himself in power.
Netanyahu has already stooped to conquer in that regard. Late last year, he faced down an internal revolt from hard-right members of his own cabinet, who deemed the man who proudly takes credit for dismantling the Oslo Accords and the two-state solution insufficiently tough on defense because he did not take advantage of every single opportunity to bomb the Gaza Strip — just most of them. Since then, the already hawkish Netanyahu has gone out of his way to burnish his nationalist credentials, playing up the demagogy and warning darkly of left-wingers handing the country over to the tender mercies of “the Arabs.”
Last week, in a step so shocking that even AIPAC denounced it, Netanyahu and his party legitimized Otzma Yehudit (“Jewish Power”), a radical right-wing party associated with the teachings of the genocidal terrorist Rabbi Meir Kahane, by incorporating it into a right-wing union with the religious nationalist party HaBayit HaYehudi (“Jewish Home”). For Netanyahu, this was a nakedly self-serving act of parliamentary calculus, as a joint list of far-right parties is more likely to clear the threshold for seats in the Knesset than each party would on its own, and Likud needs as many seats as it can get for its coalition partners.
Netanyahu’s legal turmoil may or may not cost his party a plurality in the Knesset, but even if it does, there’s no guarantee that these voters will defect to the center rather than the far right. Israeli politics has taken on an increasingly violent, nationalist, and anti-Arab tone in recent years, with the center-left collapsing and the mainstream right going into business with an increasingly fanatical cast of characters that make Netanyahu look reasonable and statesmanlike in comparison.
In other words, if Israeli democracy is falling apart, Avichai Mandelblit is pretty far down on the list of people responsible for that.