Netanyahu: Down, but Not Out

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The Israeli prime minister faces many charges, yet his supporters remain behind him

As political pressure mounts on Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the primary suspect in three separate corruption cases, one silver lining has emerged for the embattled leader: No matter the allegations he faces, he can consistently rely on the support of the Israeli public.

When police recommended Netanyahu's indictment on charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust in February, international media questioned how much longer Netanyahu could remain in power. Many counted his days in office as numbered. Yet Israelis continue to back their leader – and it's not because they believe he is innocent of the charges against him.

Israelis' continued support for Netanyahu despite his scandals may ring familiar to Americans. The prime minister has a mostly right-wing base of supporters and many of them, analysts say, simply believe that all politicians are corrupt, and favor their leader over any alternative.

After serving more than a decade as Israel's prime minister, Netanyahu has managed to persuade enough of the electorate that he is both statesmanlike and that he represents the everyman against the elites.

In that sense, Netanyahu and U.S. President Donald Trump belong to the rising populist trend in many Western democracies, says Gideon Rahat, a political science professor at Jerusalem's Hebrew University. Additionally, in both Israel and the U.S., partisan politics is a more powerful force than allegations of wrongdoing, Rahat adds.

According to the latest Peace Index, a monthly poll conducted by Tel Aviv University and the Israel Democracy Institute, 42 percent of Israeli Jews say the prime minister should not resign, even if he is indicted by the attorney general.

According to the latest Peace Index, a monthly poll conducted by Tel Aviv University and the Israel Democracy Institute, 42 percent of Israeli Jews say the prime minister should not resign, even if he is indicted by the attorney general. The same poll found that 59 percent do not believe Netanyahu's claim that "There will be nothing because there is nothing." Arab-Israelis, meanwhile, are less forgiving: 69 percent believe he should resign if he is indicted, and 79 percent do not believe his claims of innocence.

According to Israeli law, the prime minister is not required to resign if he is indicted – only if he is then convicted in a court of law. This has never happened, because previous prime ministers accused of corruption resigned before they could be indicted.

Yet just as the investigations into Netanyahu have widened, so has his lead over his challengers. In nearly a dozen opinion polls conducted in March, his ruling Likud party emerged victorious over every opposition party, sometimes with double-digit leads.

The next Israeli elections are scheduled for November 2019. The attorney general is expected to take at least six months to reach a decision on whether to indict Netanyahu. This could bring two firsts in Israeli history: the country may have an indicted prime minister serving in office and, alternating between campaigning and appearing in court as he runs for another term.

Even Israel's president has hinted that Netanyahu should step down if he's indicted, pointing to Netanyahu's own words in 2008, when he called for the resignation of then-Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who faced the same charges Netanyahu faces now.

Netanyahu enjoys continued public support because of several characteristics of his leadership, some of them contradictory. Many Israelis see Netanyahu as the only politician who possesses the worldly sophistication and statesmanship necessary to represent Israel on the global stage. At the same time, his largely right-wing base views him as an underdog up against the left-wing elites who led the country before him.

"Netanyahu has succeeded in painting himself as the representative of the people," says Rahat. Yet since he has been in power so long, "He's also succeeded in making himself seem irreplaceable."

The prime minister also has persuaded the public of his vigilance on national security and being the only Israeli leader capable of standing up to Israel's enemies around the world, says Dahlia Scheindlin, an independent Israeli pollster and political strategist. "The perception among Israelis is that the world is never going to like what we do and Netanyahu stands up to them and advances our interests in the face of that."

Netanyahu's supporters also see the allegations against him as relatively trivial, says Tamar Hermann, co-editor of the monthly Peace Index and senior fellow at the Israel Democracy Institute. "They think there was something there, but not necessarily something that should force him to resign."

The charges against Netanyahu involve his acceptance of more than $300,000 in gifts, and allegations that he offered political favors to news publishers in return for positive coverage.

Netanyahu, like Trump, has portrayed the investigations against him as a witch hunt. This tactic, analysts say, has helped him hold on to his base.

"Many people in Israel think that this is a conspiracy of the old elites against him, that this is a political matter, and that the left is working with the attorney general and with the police to topple him," says Hermann.

Though Netanyahu's base is strong, it's far from representing Israel as a whole. His approval is high among right-wing voters, but extremely low among the left. The vast majority of Israelis are skew right-wing.

"He's among the most polarizing figures in Israeli life," says Scheindlin. "It's a very specific portion of the Israeli public that supports him. Another very large portion despises him and views him as a danger to Israeli democracy."

The article was first published in US News