The ongoing corruption investigations against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu have reached a fever pitch in the last few weeks, with the Prime Minister being subject to a sixth round of questioning by the police Sunday evening . What seemed fanciful only a few months ago seems much more plausible today: an indictment against Netanyahu and his exit from the political arena. In typical fashion, Netanyahu’s modus operandi in this situation has been to insist he is simply the victim of a smear campaign in the hopes of scuttling investigations, while looking towards another election campaign to shore up support with the assumption he would coast to reelection. However, a poll conducted last month by Channel 10 that predicted a center-left majority capable of blocking him may prove these assumptions incorrect. More tellingly, an additional poll by Channel 12 claims a majority of Israelis would like to see Netanyahu step down after this current term. Channel 12 also commissioned a survey predicting a right-wing win, albeit an incredibly narrow one, calling into question how solid Netanyahu’s position is. And just days ago, a poll released by Walla! News gave an expanded Yesh Atid list, including Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon and former Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi, a wide lead over Likud.
Of course, this is 2017, and if polls were to be trusted, Hillary Clinton would now be president, the United Kingdom would remain firmly ensconced within the European Union, and Netanyahu would have lost his 2015 bid for reelection to then-Labor leader Isaac Herzog. It is therefore unwise to accept these results at face value, especially when one takes into consideration the political fickleness of the Israeli public. But cynics who have, for years, ascribed to Netanyahu some supernatural electoral power, focus far too intently on the man himself, and not the party to which he is linked. These polls were conducted with the assumption Netanyahu would once again be the leader of a right-wing camp, a problematic expectation at the moment. If, in fact, Netanyahu is forced to step down, the smooth transition of power to a successor-in-waiting is unlikely, simply because there is no clear successor to which to turn; Netanyahu’s fixation on centralizing power and undermining competitors means the right’s electoral status in a post-Bibi scenario is far from assured.
The prime minister has spent the better part of his time in power cutting down any possible contender, leading to either their exit from the party out of frustration, or a complete exodus from the political arena. Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon was once a rising star in the Likud due to his “cellular revolution” that broke up the monopoly in Israel’s telecommunications market; he was quickly targeted and undermined by Netanyahu, who refrained from awarding him a senior ministerial position back in 2012. Kahlon opted to leave politics altogether, only returning in 2015, this time with a new party over which he — tellingly — had complete control. Former Education and Interior Minister Gideon Sa’ar too has been perceived as a legitimate challenger, and while he voluntarily left office years ago, he remains popular among Likud constituents and has flirted with the idea of reentering the Knesset. Within the ranks of sitting Likud MKs, there has long been speculation regarding Netanyahu’s departure. Various figures including Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz, Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz, and Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan have remained loyal to Netanyahu and have likely begun sharpening their knives in anticipation of an upcoming intra-party conflict. This leaves us a with crowded field of Likudniks, to say nothing of other prominent right-wing figures like Education Minister Naftali Bennett, Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked and Yisrael Beiteinu chairman Avigdor Lieberman, who style themselves as natural successors.
Netanyahu had strategically shifted rightward over the last few years, the better to outflank his opponents in Habayit Hayehudi and Yisrael Beiteinu to staunch the bleeding of right-leaning constituents. He has been able to capture those right-wing votes, and, for the time being, retain them. However, he may have alienated traditional center-right voters troubled by the party’s increasingly nationalist tilt in the process, delivering them to Yesh Atid’s Yair Lapid, who, according to polls, would rebound tremendously from the 2015 election and receive either the largest share of mandates among center-left parties or the second largest amount, offering an alternative to traditional right-wingers for whom “leftist” is a dirty word. Journalist Gershom Gorenberg also points out a combination of frustration with the right’s harsh worldview, as well as Netanyahu’s attacks on the police and mounting corruption charges may have influenced voters to look to the center. The left’s criticism of Labor leader Avi Gabbay’s recent decision to tack in the same direction notwithstanding, Gabbay could also very likely be informed by this reality.
Majoritarian trends in Israel have also aided Netanyahu’s grip on power and created a cult of personality, helping him perpetuate his narrative as the victim of a conspiracy hatched by the opposition, police force, media, and courts. To be sure, Netanyahu is not the first leader of Likud to take on a mythic stature; it’s telling that while Labor has been cannibalizing itself for years, Likud’s pantheon of leaders is made up just four politicians: Menachem Begin, Yitzhak Shamir, Ariel Sharon, and Netanyahu. All of these figures succeeded in winning the loyalty of their constituents and nurturing a deep mistrust of the left and the elite. Yet, while Begin was much beloved by the rank and file of the party, his followers were never motivated to harm the courts or employ all sorts of legislative maneuvers initiated by the likes of MKs David Bitan and David Amsalem in order to keep him in power; it was understood a prime minister was never considered to be above the law. On the contrary, part of Begin’s appeal as a politician was his unique ability to present himself as a man of the people, free of the corruption that had long plagued the Labor Party.
Much has already been written about the similarities between the tactics of Netanyahu and those of United States President Donald Trump. While it is always problematic to draw exact parallels, it is worth noting the current predicament of the Republican Party: its embrace of Trump has evolved into an insurgency on its right-flank aping the president’s populist inclinations. Worse still is the transformation of the party into Trump’s personal platform, subsuming its agenda and leading to a dangerous conflation of Trumpism with Republican philosophy. Both examples thus display how adherence to an egotistical leader leaves constituents more loyal to a single figure than to the party or its ideology, hollowing out the center and leaving it vulnerable to competitors. In the United States, a two-party system makes the lack of an alternative less costly (although Trump’s dismal approval rating cannot help but lea ve Republicans nervous). In a parliamentary system, such as Israel’s, Likud’s mandates could easily be scooped up by parties to its left and right in the event of a crisis of succession.
While it would be remiss to paint Netanyahu as some Hobbesian-like caricature obsessed with political survival, the prime minister is heavily influenced by two major considerations. The first, “l’etat c’est moi” (I am the state), has convinced him his premiership grants an extraordinary mandate to lead the country, and that he remains best-suited to steer Israel through the dangerous waters in which it finds itself at the moment regarding Iran’s expansion. The second stems from Netanyahu’s somewhat self-absorbed worldview, “apres moi, le deluge” (after me, the flood): he truly believes Israel is endangered without his guiding hand, and that, simultaneously, the fate of an Israel without him at the helm is of no real interest. His continued premiership thus takes priority over other considerations, even if a short-term victory comes at the expense of democracy, in the form of kowtowing to anti-democratic legislation initiated by coalition partners, attacks on the High Court and media, and entertaining the notion of passing laws that would prevent his possible indictment. Likud’s long-term viability in the face of this erosion of democratic norms is therefore of a secondary concern.
This naturally presents an opening for the Israeli left going forward and, with the rise of Avi Gabbay and Yair Lapid, a chance to capture disillusioned center-right voters. Of course, even with these investigations bearing down on him, Netanyahu’s days are not assuredly numbered; he has managed to maneuver himself out of similar situations in the past, and there is no guarantee he won’t be successful this time around. Nonetheless, those seeking a change in government cannot ignore the fact there are few candidates within the right-wing camp to fill such a large void if and when the prime minister leaves the political scene, leading to a possible state of chaos on the right, and a major bout of infighting in order to choose his successor. Whether this spells outright disaster or a simple setback for the right is irrelevant; such circumstances will likely bode well for Israel’s left-wing.