Analysis: Netanyahu corruption cases to take center stage in election

Can the opposition repeat the Left's success of 1992 in making corruption a central issue?

sraelis from the Druze minority together with others take part in a rally to protest against Jewish nation-state law in Rabin square in Tel Aviv, Israel, August 4, 2018 (photo credit: CORINNA KERN/REUTERS)
sraelis from the Druze minority together with others take part in a rally to protest against Jewish nation-state law in Rabin square in Tel Aviv, Israel, August 4, 2018
(photo credit: CORINNA KERN/REUTERS)
When an election is called, there’s often a tendency to make it about something. To some extent, it’s a silly thing to do; a national election is about everything the government has done and plans to do.
But inasmuch as we can give the election a theme at this point, it is definitely corruption and the rule of law.
Netanyahu"s legal woes grow as police seek new bribery charges, December 3, 2018 (Reuters)
The consensus in the political field these days is that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu could have tried a lot harder to come to a compromise with the haredi (ultra-Orthodox) parties or with opposition parties to allow for a haredi IDF enlistment law to pass before the Supreme Court’s January 15 deadline. The real reason Netanyahu wants an early election seems to be that he is racing against Attorney-General Avichai Mandelblit, to get reelected before a decision is made to indict him and on what charges.
And it’s that very topic that is likely to be the centerpiece of many election campaign messages in the coming weeks.
This can go either way for Netanyahu. The Likud’s base has not forsaken him in light of the allegations, and the party has successfully parlayed this into a victim narrative, by which law enforcement is just looking for any way to get rid of him. But the more that corruption allegations are in the spotlight, the less likely the Likud will be able to bring in new voters.
With that in mind, opposition parties will surely call Netanyahu corrupt repeatedly – and they can also cite Shas leader Arye Deri, whom the police recommended to indict on counts of fraud and breach of trust – since Netanyahu said he plans to form a government with the same parties next time.
And opposition parties will probably pressure the more centrist parties that could sit in Netanyahu’s coalition – whether it’s Kulanu or MK Orly Levy-Abecassis or former IDF chief of staff Benny Gantz’s yet-unnamed ones – to take a stand on whether they will sit in a coalition led by a prime minister under indictment. Levy-Abecassis and Kulanu leader Moshe Kahlon already said no, but on Tuesday, his faction chairman Roi Folkmann clarified to Army Radio that Kahlon means only in the case of a final indictment decision, after a hearing with Mandelblit.
Opposition messaging will also likely go beyond the allegations themselves.
The question they will surely ask is whether the public can really expect the focus and stability a premier needs if he is indicted. Not only will his attention be divided between running the country and his own legal troubles, but there is no guarantee that he will even be able to remain prime minister throughout the process.
The legal precedent is that ministers have to resign if they’re indicted, but a prime minister only has to resign if he is convicted after exhausting his options for appeal. But this has never been put to the test, and the Supreme Court will in all likelihood have to weigh in on the matter. Opposition parties may be the ones that will petition the court.
The Right is not usually a fan of the Supreme Court. Decades of judicial activism and criticism from the Right have primed its voters to believe that the courts are inherently biased and left-wing.
And much of the Likud, from Netanyahu to coalition chairman David Amsalem and others, have attacked the police over their conduct during the investigations of the prime minister. Netanyahu has repeatedly complained about the repeated leaks to the media about his case.
And the police are their own worst enemy on this front, with repeated scandals involving corruption and sexual misconduct. As Netanyahu has pointed out, former police chief Roni Alsheich accused him of hiring private investigators to tail police officers on his case, which Netanyahu denies and Alsheich never brought any proof to back it up.
This is a tactic that could work well for Netanyahu, since only 21% of the citizenry has a high level of trust in the police, according to a University of Haifa poll this month.
But the opposition has a prepared message on this front as well. They have said that the Likud and the Right in general are trying to undermine the rule of law in Israel, and they will surely repeat that in the coming months. They have plenty of bills they can bring up as examples, like the “French Law” to prohibit the investigation and prosecution of a sitting prime minister. And they can twist Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked’s attempts to temper judicial activism as illegitimate, as they have done many times before.
Last month, when Netanyahu was desperately trying to avoid an early election – funny how things change so fast in politics – he repeatedly brought up the election of 1992. His point was that the Right brought down a right-wing government, and ended up with prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, who signed the Oslo Accords.
But there’s another lesson to be learned from 1992. That was the year when the country was introduced to the slogan: “Corrupt people, we are sick of you!” This message remains in the parlance to this day, where it can be seen on bumper stickers distributed by the Movement for Quality Government. At the time, it was a response to multiple corruption cases related to Shas, as well as other scandals in the IDF and in banking, but the slogan was seen as a success for the opposition.
Corruption and the rule of law will surely be important issues in this election, but whether the Center and Left will successfully maneuver them to their advantage, like they did in 1992, remains to be seen.