Do Charges Against Netanyahu Change Israel’s Elections?

JERUSALEM – Israeli Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit announced Thursday evening that longstanding Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will be charged in three criminal investigations.

According to a day-old Times of Israel poll, the announcement heralds the end of the decade-long Bibi era. Right-wing and center-right voters are expected to defect from the Likud, Netanyahu’s political party, in the upcoming Israeli national elections on April 9. As a result, Likud will not have enough seats in the Knesset (Israeli Parliament) to create a government with a ruling coalition of right-wing parties.

Simply put: this could mean no more Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. But there’s still the hearings to look forward to, as the charges are not final until due process has been given.

All of Netanyahu’s cases involve allegations of corruption. Case 1000 involves gifts, favors, and benefits from billionaire friends. Case 2000 is about Netanyahu’s dealings with the publisher of Yedioth Ahronoth, a prominent newspaper, in an attempt to get more favorable coverage. And in case 4000, Netanyahu is said to have traded government regulations for positive news coverage from Walla, another prominent news organization, as it is owned by Shaul Elovitch – a controlling shareholder in the massive Bezeq telecommunications company.

Netanyahu has been a controversial figure during his past decade at the head of Israel’s government, particularly among diaspora Jews. He oversaw the collapse of the Kotel Deal in 2016, which was meant to bring government recognition to the Reform and Conservative Jewish movements in Israel, and has been cozy with right-wing politicians in Europe that, while expressing support for the state of Israel, have also been rewriting Holocaust history in their countries.

Most recently, the Prime Minister has been roundly criticized by Israelis and non-Israelis alike for helping to bring Otzma Yehudit, an extremist and racist far-right party, back into the political mainstream by arranging an Otzma merger with a coalition of other rightwing parties.

Though polls tell one story, it remains to be seen how members of the Likud party will react to the news, and how the reality of Israeli elections will be reshaped in the coming days. It may very well be that public sentiment will rally behind Netanyahu, as it has in the past – something that will leave more questions than answers about today’s Israel.

The opinion corner:

This day has been expected for quite a while by anyone keeping a pulse on Israeli news. But still, it’s an incredible thing to behold.

Netanyahu is a fascinating character. He’s been part of Israeli political machinery since the 1980s, was Prime Minister in the late 90s as the Oslo Accords failed, and has been the primary Israeli figure in the political consciousness of my generation (for reference, I was born in 1997 – during Bibi’s first term).

Netanyahu is the center of basically all Israel-diaspora discourse. Religious pluralism issues? Bibi got in the way. Lefty anti-occupation protest groups like IfNotNow? Built around the accused evil of Netanyahu. J Street, AIPAC, the Iran Deal, and Obama? Bibi, Bibi, Bibi, and Bibi.

This, too, is in his nature. In the past few months Netanyahu has been foreign, defense, health, and immigration minister – all while being PRIME minister. In a talk with Dov Lipman, a former member of the Knesset, on a Minnesota Hillel spring break trip in 2017, Lipman said that Netanyahu is a brilliant man who feels that, because he’s been running Israel for so long, he’s the only person who can run Israel. Having been in a press conference with Netanyahu and watched him ooze charisma, confidence, and overwhelming arrogance, I agree with Lipman’s assessment completely.

Bibi is built, as a person and persona, to be the center of everything. And he’s accomplished it; the news of him being charged in criminal wrongdoing is plastered on news sites around the world.

But that leaves us with a simple question: what comes next? Israel will, of course, be reshaped in the upcoming election. But if Bibi is really out of the political game, where does that leave diaspora Jewry, and specifically, American Jewry, in navigating Israel-related policy? Or is that the silliest question a Jew could ever ask?

Personally, I can’t say I know, and I prefer to wait and find out. But some things are worth reflecting on, as major changes come hurtling at us.

Lev Gringauz is a freelance journalist and contributing writer to TC Jewfolk, with a love for everything Israel. He can be reached at lev[email protected] for comments, questions, or story suggestions