The remorseless advance of Binyamin Netanyahu

As a general election approaches, the Israeli prime minister could yet defy corruption scandals to become his country’s longest-serving leader. 

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Outside her clothes shop in Tel Aviv’s Carmel Market, Orin Philipson, a striking, black-haired woman in her fifties, expresses her emotion for the Israeli prime minister facing his fifth general election as Likud leader on 9 April. “I love Bibi,” she says. “I will dance in the streets when he wins.” But what about the corruption indictments he faces? “Everybody is chasing after him,” she replies. “But I don’t believe any of it. You don’t know what he has done for this country. He’s made the streets safe for us to walk in.”

The almost mystical devotion of Philipson and other supporters is one reason Binyamin Netanyahu (prime minister from 1996-99 and from 2009 to the present) can yet hope to become Israel’s longest-serving leader, surpassing David Ben-Gurion, the country’s founding father.

Even more cynical Likud voters seem prepared to discount the corruption allegations against Netanyahu. “We’ll be voting for the thieves,” jokes another stall holder, Reuben Bukhrashvilli, a Georgia-born orthodox Jew who still believes only Netanyahu has enough experience and international standing to serve as premier.

Outsiders may nevertheless be surprised by opinion polls suggesting that Netanyahu is the likeliest candidate to form a governing coalition even if Blue and White, a new centrist party led by Benny Gantz, a former chief of staff of the Israeli Defence Forces, wins the most votes.

In addition to the three counts of corruption on which Netanyahu has been indicted, Gantz has urged a renewed investigation into the prime minister’s purchase – actual and attempted – of submarines and other naval vessels the military didn’t want from the German firm ThyssenKrupp, and his alleged secret approval of their sale to Egypt by the same company.

To counter such threats, Netanyahu was deploying ruthless campaign tactics before reports  – in a globally familiar twist – of fake social media accounts promoting Likud. When Gantz recently fluffed a TV interview, Likud used the clip – and a mysteriously leaked recording of the general suggesting that Netanyahu would like him dead – to run a horror-movie style video branding him “paranoid” and mentally unstable.

To maximise the chances of the right-wing bloc of Israeli parties commanding a narrow majority, Netanyahu took the once unthinkable step of brokering a merger between the extreme, ultra-nationalist Jewish Home party and the unequivocally racist Otzma Yehudit. The latter is a descendant of Kach, the fascistic group banned in 1988 by the Israeli Supreme Court from standing in elections. One of its stalwarts, the Hebron settler Baruch Marzel, courted headlines in 2000 by holding a party at the grave of Baruch Goldstein, who shot dead 29 Palestinian worshippers at Hebron’s Ibrahimi Mosque in 1994.

Above all, Netanyahu has a Trump card. His intimate links to the US Republican right are daily reinforced by supportive pieces in the free daily newspaper Israel Hayom, which has by far the largest circulation of any Israeli title and is owned by casino billionaire Sheldon Adelson, Donald Trump’s biggest donor in the 2016 presidential campaign. But that’s the least of it. Not content with having moved the US embassy to Jerusalem, and slashed aid funding for the Palestinians, Trump used Netanyahu’s well-timed visit to the White House on 25 March to once more casually rewrite US Middle East policy – officially recognising, in defiance of international law, Israel’s unilateral annexation of the Golan Heights, seized from Syria in the 1967 Six-Day War.

There is little evidence so far for Netanyahu’s persistent claim that Gantz is a “leftist.” The general opened his campaign with a video celebrating the body count of militants from the 2014 Gaza War and has merely stated that he is “not ashamed of talking about peace”. In his speech to a rally at Jerusalem’s garish Cinema City on 28 March, Gantz made the now ritual commitment to an all-Israeli Jerusalem even though Palestinians seek shared sovereignty as part of a two-state solution. After a rocket from Gaza hit an occupied house in central Israel on 24 March, Gantz tweeted that Netanyahu had “lost his grip on security” in an apparent attack on his relative restraint towards Hamas during the campaign.

With the once-mighty Labor Party projected to win around eight seats, Gantz remains the only alternative prime minister. “What has Bibi done for us?” asked Tel Aviv aquarium dealer Dan Hayer. “He hasn’t solved the problem with Gaza. He hasn’t made an agreement with the Palestinians. And he hasn’t brought down the cost of living.” (Tel Aviv was recently named one of the world’s ten most expensive cities.) And yet many Netanyahu opponents have muted expectations.

Amnon Lipkin, a supporter of Meretz, the most left-wing Jewish Israeli party, said: “If Gantz could form a coalition with Likud at least it would be a broader government and the extreme parties would have less power.”

This latter point represents the strongest case for the prime minister’s removal, whatever the doubts surrounding his challenger. Of the potential consequences of a Netanyahu victory, the most draconian is the unilateral annexation of at least parts of the West Bank, which end the faintest pretence of a two-state solution.

Prospective right-wing partners are contemplating a bill to protect sitting prime ministers from criminal trials. Since Netanyahu might otherwise be headed for jail, smaller parties will enjoy greater capacity to push their demand for the extension of Israeli “sovereignty” to the West Bank.

In these circumstances, some Arab Israelis intend to boycott the election. A young activist asked Ayman Odeh, the leader of joint Jewish-Arab socialist party Hadash, how they should respond to such threats. “Not voting is a vote,” Odeh replied. “It’s a vote for Netanyahu.” And nothing, he hardly had to remind his audience, could be worse than that.

Donald Macintyre is the former Jerusalem correspondent of the Independent

This article appears in the 05 April 2019 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit wreckers