Can Bibi win even under indictment?

Noah Millman

Benjamin Netanyahu has made history again. Already Israel's longest-serving prime minister, he just became the first one to be charged with a crime while in office— in his case, bribery, fraud and breach of trust. Now, he and his party may have to face the voters — for the third time in a year — and ask them to give a man under indictment another chance to run the country.

In normal times, the idea would be absurd. But if these were normal times, Israel would have formed a government after one of the past two elections. Both votes were explicit referenda on Netanyahu's leadership, very much including his alleged corruption. Netanyahu's coalition shrank each time. And yet — he is still there.

A recap of recent Israeli electoral history: The main current opposition party, Blue and White, is an alliance of center and center-right parties that agrees with Likud on most core issues related to security. Their campaign before the April election focused on the need to get Netanyahu out of office, and they managed to draw the overwhelming majority of center and left-wing votes to their banner, leaving the venerable center-left Labor on the brink of extinction. But they were only able to battle Likud to a tie — and since the smaller right-wing and ultra-Orthodox parties who are Likud's natural partners got most of the remaining seats, Netanyahu was the only one in a position to form a government.

Then, a surprise happened. Avigdor Lieberman, head of Yisrael Beiteinu ("Israel, Our Home"), refused to join a Likud-led government over disagreements with the ultra-Orthodox parties. The move was widely understood as a shot fired straight at Netanyahu, since the only other possible coalition would have been a national unity government, and Blue and White would only accept that if Netanyahu were to be removed as prime minister. As Likud would not accept this, Israel faced another election in September.

The results of that election only deepened the gridlock. Both Blue and White and Likud lost seats, while Yisrael Beiteinu and the Arab-dominated Joint List gained. But once again there were only two plausible coalitions: a broad right-wing coalition including both Yisrael Beiteinu and the ultra-Orthodox, and a national unity coalition including Likud and Blue and White. Lieberman enhanced his own influence, but he didn't make a new coalition possible.

Will a third election finally break the deadlock? There's reason for doubt. The cloud of criminality has been hanging over Netanyahu's head for some time, and Netanyahu has been furious in his denunciations of the charges as politically-motivated and false. Are there any voters whose minds will be changed by the formality of an indictment? Even if there are, will Likud voters shift to Blue and White — or will they shift to smaller right-wing parties to ensure the only possible coalition remains a right-wing one?

As for the left, there are precious few voters left to migrate to Blue and White. If Labor loses much more, they might fall below the threshold for representation in the Knesset at all, an outcome their remaining voters surely want to avoid. Meanwhile, how will left-wing voters who pulled the lever twice for Blue and White leader Benny Gantz feel now that it is abundantly clear that the next government will be a coalition between their party and Likud? Blue and White lost votes between April and September when they desperately needed to outpace Likud. Who is to say they won't bleed further?

If the trend of the past two elections continues, Likud and Blue and White could each drop below 30 seats, meaning that even a national unity government of the two largest parties would have no majority. Narrowly parochial and ideological parties would have even more leverage, and if Netanyahu still led Likud, no government could be formed without him.

Of course, Netanyahu might not hold onto control of his party. Gideon Sa'ar, a former Netanyahu protégé who quit politics in 2014, has called for a leadership election within Likud, saying he would be able to lead the party better in the context of a national unity government. Sa'ar is certainly hard-line enough to suit the Likud rank-and-file, but Netanyahu has been extremely effective at personalizing his leadership, making himself the symbol of Israel's right, and defaming any challengers as opportunists who would risk a left-wing government to promote their own interests, or as closet leftists themselves. Will the party he has led so successfully for so long actually oust him in favor of an alternative running explicitly on forming a national unity government rather than a government of the right?

The most likely outcome is still the one so many Israelis dread: another election that leads to even more gridlock, with no government possible without Netanyahu's participation. But this time, with the head of Likud under indictment, the consequences for democracy would be more severe. Returning Netanyahu to power under these circumstances would effectively be a declaration that tribal politics have eclipsed the rule of law itself, that even a criminal indictment will simply be disbelieved if it threatens the tribal leader.

Washington will be watching closely, and not only to learn who they will be dealing with next in Jerusalem.

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