PAUL KNOTT: Is Israeli politics ready to say goodbye to prime minister Benjamin 'Bibi' Netanyahu?

PUBLISHED: 08:36 09 April 2019 | UPDATED: 08:36 09 April 2019

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visits the border with Egypt. Photo: JIM HOLLANDER/AFP/Getty Images

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visits the border with Egypt. Photo: JIM HOLLANDER/AFP/Getty Images

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Benjamin Netanyahu has been a dominant force in Israeli politics for decades, but he could finally be doomed by corruption allegations and a coalescing opposition, says PAUL KNOTT.

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Until recent weeks, Israeli prime minister Benjamin ‘Bibi’ Netanyahu looked certain to be returned to power in next month’s general election.

Re-election would allow the notoriously egotistical Netanyahu to achieve his ambition of becoming the longest-serving leader in the history of the State of Israel. But that same hubris has led to criminal charges and the creation of an opposition alliance against Bibi that may deny him his cherished dream.

In the eyes of his many remaining loyal backers, Netanyahu has a good story to tell in support of his staying on at Beit Aghion, the prime minister’s official Jerusalem residence.

Since he began his second stint in office in 2009, Israel’s economy has generally been strong. The country is increasingly renowned internationally for its thriving high-tech sector. While there are serious concerns about inequality and public service provision, unemployment is low.

With the exception of the 2014 conflict with Gaza’s Palestinians, Israel’s borders have largely been quiet during the Netanyahu era – a crucial issue for a nation with numerous unfriendly neighbours.

Compared with the preceding decades, there has been a significant reduction in attacks by Palestinian terrorists too. This relative calm is partly a product of the restraining by Israel of the Palestinian population in the Occupied Territories.

Some Israelis worry about the damage such conduct is doing to the reputation and character of a country founded as refuge for a people who were themselves escaping oppression (and far worse – genocide). But for many Israelis, the feeling for now is largely one of ‘out of sight, out of mind’ and understandable relief that fewer bombs are going off on their streets.

Whether Israel’s strategy is a viable one for maintaining long-term security is another question. But the declining support of Israelis for a peace process with the Palestinians is perhaps the clearest indicator of Netanyahu’s success in shifting Israel’s centre of political gravity sharply to the right.

Netanyahu first came to public prominence as a spokesman for Israel in the US and its representative to the United Nations. He he has continued to deploy his savvy communications skills throughout his career. But Bibi’s obsession with controlling the political narrative could now bring about his downfall.

In February, the Netanyahu-appointed attorney general Avichai Mandelblit dropped a bombshell by announcing his intention to indict the prime minister in three cases of bribery, fraud and breach of trust. All three charges could potentially lead to substantial prison sentences.

One of the three cases brought against Netanyahu is a straightforward accusation of corruption – the acceptance of multiple expensive gifts from wealthy businessmen in exchange for political favours.

The other two charges relate directly to Bibi’s alleged attempts to manipulate media coverage of himself. One case is based around incriminating tapes of Netanyahu discussing a scheme with newspaper magnate Arnon Mozes to secure favourable coverage in his publication, Yedioth Aharonot, in return for the government undermining a competitor (the already slavishly pro-Netanyahu Israel Hayom freesheet).

The third charge accuses Netanyahu – who was, at the time, serving as his own minister of communications – of providing regulatory concessions worth millions of dollars to the controlling shareholder of the Bezeq telecommunications company, Shaul Elovitch, in exchange for helpful reporting on its popular news website Walla!.

The attorney general’s early announcement on the investigation caught Netanyahu off guard. The prime minister’s initial strategy appears to have been to hold the election before any indictment appeared. This would then have given him the opportunity to use his newly-mandated power to bury the charges.

The damage the forthcoming indictment has done to Netanyahu’s prospects has been compounded by the impetus it has given to his opponents. They had previously been divided into a kaleidoscope of groupings, none of whom were managing to fill the hole left by the seemingly irreversible decline of the once-dominant Labour Party.

The one new candidate who had been gaining some traction was the former chief of staff of the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF), Benny Gantz. Israel has a long history of military men succeeding in politics. This is unsurprising in a country where most people do national service and the armed forces are revered for their record of fighting to preserve the state’s existence.

The imposing figure of Gantz is well cast for the role. He is a tough, purposeful but quietly dignified individual, who projects a very different vision of strength to the more histrionic Netanyahu.

Even so, Gantz was still struggling to truly threaten Netanyahu until he pulled off the unlikely coup of forming an alliance with other prominent anti-Bibi figures. Chief among them is Yair Lapid, a famous former television host who has led his own Yesh Atid party for seven years. The self-confident Lapid has built a solid block of support but previously failed to work with others enough to have a chance of achieving power.

Gantz’s substantial military record allows him to challenge Netanyahu on the latter’s own preferred turf of security issues. Gantz has bolstered himself further in this regard by recruiting another popular ex-chief of staff, lieutenant general Gabi Ashkenazi, and former defense minister Moshe Ya’alon to his alliance.

Their joint platform is called Kahol Lavan (‘Blue and White’, in English – the colours of the Israeli flag). It is calibrated to corral as many centrist and left-of-centre voters as possible, while drawing in those on the right who are appalled by the allegations against Netanyahu.

Recent polls indicate that the race is neck and neck, with Kahol Lavan having a slight edge over Netanyahu’s Likud party. But the new alliance will probably need to win more handily than that because the current balance of Israel’s proportional representation system gives Likud more options among the smaller parties for forming a coalition government.

In this respect, Netanyahu has already indicated his willingness to trawl the depths to preserve his political power and personal liberty. In late February, he engineered a merger between two fringe far-right parties in order to increase their chances of clearing the 3.25% threshold of votes required for representation in parliament.

This step even sparked condemnation from some of Netanyahu’s strongest supporters in the US. One of the two parties concerned, Otzma Yehudit (‘Jewish Power’) is the successor to the rabidly nationalist Kach grouping, which was outlawed in Israel in the 1980s and added to the American list of proscribed terrorist groups in 1997. Amongst other acts of violence, a Kach follower massacred 29 Palestinians praying in a mosque in Hebron in 1994. Until now, the faction had been scrupulously isolated by democratic Israeli parties of all stripes.

Since the indictment against him was announced and his Kahol Lavan opponents coalesced, Netanyahu, a divide-and-ruler par excellence, has gone on the offensive. He is seeking to smear Gantz and the hard-bitten generals alongside him as a bunch of soppy liberals engaged in a left-wing plot against Israel with the Likud-connected attorney general Mandelblit.

This line seems ludicrous to outside observers but is more plausible to the sizeable proportion of the electorate conditioned by years of Bibi’s strident propagandising and slanting of the media landscape.

The election on April 8 is a pivotal one for the future of Israel and, perhaps, the Palestinians too.

The outcome remains in the balance. What is certain is that Benjamin Netanyahu will exhibit few moral scruples over the coming weeks as he struggles desperately to save his own skin.

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