Uncertainty deepens in Israel as Netanyahu fights for political survival

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s fate is uncertain after his indictment on corruption charges.
(Atef Safadi / EPA/Shutterstock)

A defiant Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Friday rejected calls for his resignation and lashed out at numerous perceived enemies as a criminal corruption indictment against him plunged his political future, and that of his country, into pandemonium.

Increasingly, his pathway to clinging to power appeared to be narrowing.

“The era of Netanyahu is over,” said Alon Pinkas, former Israeli consul general in New York. “Despite the cult following he has that has kept him in office, there is a general fatigue that enough is enough.”


Netanyahu vowed to fight the charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust, and he has escaped predictions of political demise in the past. But the indictment announced Thursday comes amid a governing paralysis in which Netanyahu and his chief political rival, Benny Gantz, each failed to form a government after two dead-heat elections in April and September. He called on his backers to hold public demonstrations in his defense, although only a smattering of supporters took to the streets late Thursday and Friday.

For Netanyahu, 70, the first sitting prime minister to be indicted on criminal charges in Israel, it remained unclear whether, or how soon, he might be forced to step down. Regardless, many analysts see his ability to govern as weakened.

His Likud Party has remained loyal to him so far, but might be forced to turn against him and name a replacement to lead the faction into a possible new election early next year.

“If polling shows the public believes that Netanyahu is holding the country hostage, then the party might have to act,” said David Makovsky, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and former editor of the Jerusalem Post. Though Netanyahu may think the legal case can buy him time, Makovsky said, it is a gamble.

Snap polls on Israel Channel 13 television news reported Friday that 56% of those surveyed believed Netanyahu could no longer govern. Such surveys are not considered scientifically reliable, but the number was close to the results of a poll two weeks ago conducted by the Israel Democracy Institute, which found that 53% thought Netanyahu should resign if indicted.

Coming at the conclusion of three years of investigations, the indictment announced by Atty. Gen. Avichai Mandelblit was long awaited. Nonetheless, it landed like a bombshell.

The charges, which could send Netanyahu to jail for a decade, allege that he accepted hundreds of thousands of dollars in gifts from business figures, including luxury items such as cigars and Champagne. He is also accused of handing out political favors in exchange for more positive coverage by an Israeli newspaper and an online outlet.

The country’s unsteady political scene was thrown into greater chaos by the indictment, but the fallout began slowly, perhaps because of the first cold snap of fall or the advent of Shabbat. Only about 50 people rallied outside Netanyahu’s official residence in Jerusalem despite intense exhortations by his right-wing Likud Party. The party planned a “massive” show of support Tuesday night.

In the first of many expected petitions, the opposition Labor Party and the Movement for Quality Government on Friday announced they would present appeals to the Supreme Court to force the prime minister to step down. Israeli law obliges regular Cabinet ministers to resign if indicted, but an untested law permits an indicted prime minister to remain in office until a final verdict, after all appeals are exhausted.

Complicating matters further, Israel is probably about to be thrust into a third electoral campaign. Until then, over the next 21 days, any Knesset member can raise his or her hand to attempt to form a government. It would be a free-for-all with horse-trading among parties. But the prospects of success for any group of factions are also uncertain.

Some Israelis were alarmed at Netanyahu’s call for the public to take to the streets, believing it would only inflame tensions. The country has been on edge for much of the year, with Netanyahu serving as a caretaker prime minister since the first failed election process in April, with renewed violence in the Palestinian Gaza Strip and growing regional influence of Iran.

The U.S. has remained a steadfast ally, with President Trump repeatedly granting Netanyahu political favors, such as recognition of Israeli sovereignty over Jerusalem and the Golan Heights. Trump, however, has been less effusively supportive in recent months and has not commented on Netanyahu’s new predicament.

Even some on Israel’s right are finding their enthusiasm for Netanyahu diminished.

“I have great respect for most of what you’ve done as prime minister, and it will be a day of celebration for me if you are found innocent,” said Hanoch Daum, a comedian who identifies as being from the right. “But I have no intention of joining you in the civil war you’re now embarking on.”

Former Justice Minister Dan Meridor, a disaffected but lifelong member of Likud, praised the capacity of Israeli institutions.

“Not many countries in the world investigate corruption at the level Israel does, and the fact that the attorney general withstood attacks, smears and attempts to delegitimize him is a source of great honor for Israeli society,” he said. “I’m not happy a prime minister has been indicted, but given the gravity of the accusations, if the investigations had ended without indictments, I’d feel much worse. ”

Using rhetoric similar to that of Trump, who faces possible impeachment also on bribery charges, and his defenders, Netanyahu described the indictments handed down by Mandelblit as an “attempted coup” and a witch hunt, demanding an “investigation of the investigators.”

An Israel perhaps as polarized as the United States seemed to defend or reject Netanyahu along partisan lines.

“Likud Knesset [parliament] members are sticking with Netanyahu like Republican politicians are sticking with Trump,” Martin Indyk, a former U.S. ambassador to Israel, said. “It’s tribal politics: They both dare not desert their bases.”

But Indyk also noted that Netanyahu lost a large chunk of voters between the April and September election and thinks it “inconceivable” that he would be able to win another election by a margin sufficient to form a government.

“Netanyahu’s loss of support is indicative of the way he has made this whole thing about him,” Indyk said, “that he’s being picked on by an elite, all in a very narcissistic way.”

Special correspondent Tarnopolsky reported from Jerusalem and Times staff writer Wilkinson from Washington.