Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s election victory makes him odds on to secure a historic fifth term in office. Assuming he can tie up coalition negotiations, he should become Israel’s longest serving leader at some point over the summer. But the term could also be Netanyahu’s shortest, as corruption investigations cast a growing shadow over the right wing of Israeli politics.
If he is indicted on corruption charges – after a hearing expected at some point in the next few months – his days could be numbered. While his coalition partners are willing to support him now because of his command of Israel’s right-wing constituency, that support could be imperilled if charges of bribery or breach of trust are handed down by Israel’s Attorney General, Avichai Mandelblit.
Despite railing against the investigations as a media-fueled witch hunt, Netanyahu is well aware of the risk they pose to his reign. In his previous coalition, some of the smaller right-wing parties intimated that an indictment would mark the end of Netanyahu’s time in office.
Anshel Pfeffer, author of the book “Bibi: The Turbulent Life and Times of Benjamin Netanyahu,” predicts that Netanyahu will use his new government to try to pass immunity laws that would protect him.
But even if he tries, it’s unclear whether Netanyahu would have the votes to succeed. “Assuming the immunity attempt fails, which I think it will, and assuming Mandelblit goes through with [indictments], which I think he will as well, there’s the saga of, ‘Will Netanyahu go to trial as a serving Prime Minister?’” says Pfeffer. “He plans to.”
That would be a crucial moment for his coalition partners, Pfeffer says.
The question is, would the prospect of a sitting Prime Minister indicted on corruption charges be enough to turn his political supporters to abandon him?
Two of his key backers would be the ultra-Orthodox parties, which both made strong showings in the election. As long as Netanyahu does not cross their religious red lines, and provides the financial support they seek, they are unlikely to walk out of any coalition – even one led by a Prime Minister under indictment.
In addition, the two or three smaller right-wing parties that are also expected to join a Netanyahu coalition would be entering their dream government – it would be hard to imagine any other coalition more sympathetic to their demands. The allure of possible moves towards annexation of West Bank settlements might encourage them to set aside the Prime Minister’s legal peril.
That willingness to discount criminal investigations and focus on other priorities is shared by many Israeli voters, who rewarded Netanyahu’s success in providing them with a secure country, a successful economy, and improved relations with some of the world’s major powers. The prospect of indictment is not going to persuade them to turn their backs on the man set to become Israel’s longest-serving Prime Minister.
When Netanyahu won in 2015, he put together a bare-minimum 61-seat coalition. Some analysts predicted his government wouldn’t last, but Netanyahu held his coalition together for four years - longer than any other he has led. The shared interests of the right wing, and the absence of any outside pressure to engage in a peace process with the Palestinians, meant the parties mostly worked well together.
This time around, the political backdrop could be even better for Netanyahu. Naftali Bennett, one of the ministers who caused him most trouble, accusing him repeatedly of being weak in the face of Hamas terror, has missed out on a seat in Parliament. The same is true for another maverick right-wing figure, Moshe Feiglin, who has been a thorn in Netanyahu’s side in the past. Parties led by both men fell below the electoral threshold.
So, Netanyahu is preparing to do what he has done on four previous occasions and build a government. Only this time he has more leverage. Under Netanyahu, the Likud party has grown to its largest size ever, dwarfing his potential coalition partners.
His offer to allies: Support me, even if I am indicted, and I will advance the interests of the right wing, including, perhaps, annexation of parts of the West Bank.
Whether he survives as Prime Minister or not, one thing is certain: A summer that should have been spent celebrating the moment he becomes the longest-serving Israeli leader will be overshadowed by yet another fight for his political life.