According to a poll released this week by Israel Hayom, 64 percent of Israelis say that the indictments against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced by Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit on Nov. 21 will not affect how they vote in the next Knesset elections. The same survey revealed that 44 percent of the public considers Netanyahu the leader best suited to be prime minister, compared to only 37 percent who feel that way about Blue and White chairman Benny Gantz. The same poll predicts that Gantz’s party would maintain the single-seat lead over Netanyahu’s Likud that it gained on Sept. 17.
The seeming inherent contradiction in terms—that Gantz is far less popular than Netanyahu, yet his party would still beat Likud by a sliver—sheds light on the Israeli political system and the predicament in which the country has been thrust since the first of what is likely to turn out to be three legislative elections in less than a year.
Ahead of the April 9 election, polls also showed Netanyahu beating Gantz as a preferred candidate for prime minister, yet indicated a neck-and-neck race between the parties of the two. When the votes were counted, the victory appeared to be clear. Though Likud and Blue and White tied, with each garnering 35 out of the total 120 Knesset seats, the right-wing bloc was much greater than the left. A government headed by Netanyahu seemed to be in the bag yet again.
Until Avigdor Lieberman, head of the Yisrael Beiteinu party, pulled a fast one and reneged on his vow before the elections to join a Likud-led coalition, that is. In spite of his personal rivalry with Netanyahu, Lieberman was viewed by himself, his voters and pollsters alike to be on the right side of the spectrum. His about-face, he claimed, had to do with his rejection of the haredi draft bill, which was not sufficiently anti-ultra-Orthodox.
The stalemate that Lieberman created prevented Netanyahu from establishing a government in the allotted time frame, and new elections were called for September.
Even then, when Blue and White took a tiny lead over Likud, the right-wing bloc was still the winner. This is why it was Netanyahu, not Gantz, who was tasked with taking the first stab at forming a coalition. Again, Lieberman blocked the possibility.
Cockier than ever for having been rewarded by a slew of new supporters who believed that his intransigence was a sign of “principles,” Lieberman proceeded to prevent the formation of a coalition for the second time.
He wanted Netanyahu out. But there was a catch. Even if he had opted to throw his party’s seats behind Blue and White, which by this point was trying to outdo him in the anti-haredi department, Gantz’s bloc still would not have been large enough to form a functioning government.
In a concerted effort to force Netanyahu out of the entire equation, Lieberman insisted that he would only join a national-unity government shared by Likud, and Blue and White. But the latter would not agree to Netanyahu’s condition to do so with the other members of his bloc. Thus, Gantz was unable to succeed where Netanyahu had failed.
Without going into the complicated details of the negotiations, which Israeli President Reuven Rivlin also called upon the two large parties to work out for the good of the country, it was evident that Netanyahu was more of a target all along than the haredim or other members of the right.
It was no accident that Mandelblit made his announcement that he would be indicting Netanyahu in all three cases that have been under investigation since 2016 as soon as Gantz was unable to form a government.
Though the country was shocked by the timing of the announcement and severity of the charges—bribery, fraud and breach of trust—no Israeli was the least bit surprised. Nor did Netanyahu’s worst enemies or most ardent fans alter their position either on the charges or on the prime minister. The only shift has been among some of his supporters who fear having the greatest and longest-serving leader in Israel’s history end his career on a low note. Others are those who believe that the fight to prove his innocence in court will become too much a distraction for him to govern properly.
A third category includes those who believe that Netanyahu has been in office for too long and who bemoan his lack of having cultivated a successor.
One point his champions agree on, however, is that the indictments—chief among them the charge that he “bribed” his way into receiving more favorable coverage in the media—are not only ridiculous, but wouldn’t hold water in any other democratic country.
This explains why Mandelblit’s announcement may have done more to cement Israeli sentiment than shift it. It also means that the so-called “end of the Netanyahu era” could be further off than many have been foreseeing.
Ruthie Blum is an Israel-based journalist and author of “To Hell in a Handbasket: Carter, Obama, and the ‘Arab Spring.’ ”