Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, a skilled survivor of Israel’s cutthroat politics, is hoping snap elections will help him withstand a potential corruption indictment, analysts say, and polls show he is likely to succeed.
Netanyahu’s government decided on Monday to hold snap elections on April 9, seven months early, as it struggles to pass legislation with only a one-seat majority in parliament.
Israel’s parliament, or Knesset, must still formally vote to dissolve itself and set the election date. A first vote was scheduled for Wednesday.
Failure to agree on a key bill on the enlistment of ultra-Orthodox Jews in the military like their secular counterparts was the ostensible reason to call elections, but many analysts pointed to Netanyahu’s legal concerns as a decisive factor.
Israel’s state prosecutor Shai Nitzan told a conference last week that he was wrapping up his recommendations on three separate cases of alleged corruption and handing them over to the attorney general.
Israeli media reported that they include a recommendation to indict the prime minister.
Analysts say it seems Netanyahu wants to confront the potential charges with a fresh electoral mandate and is betting the attorney general will not issue his decision before April.
“What made him decide to move up the date of the elections was the speech by Shai Nitzan, who announced that his recommendations were ready,” said Emmanuel Navon, political science professor at Tel Aviv University.
– ‘Prefer to wait’ –
So far, the legal cases against Netanyahu appear to have had little impact on voters, and a poll taken after Monday’s announcement of April elections showed his Likud party would remain by far the largest.
Victory in April would put Netanyahu, the 69-year-old son of a historian who is no doubt mindful of his legacy, on track to become Israel’s longest-serving prime minister, surpassing founding father David Ben-Gurion.
A decisive win will allow him to ramp up his argument that the investigations are merely the result of a plot by his political enemies to force him from office against the will of the electorate.
He is not required to step down if indicted, and there is little doubt that he would refuse to do so.
Gideon Rahat of Jerusalem’s Hebrew University and the Israel Democracy Institute think tank said he does not believe Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit should take the campaign into account in determining when to issue his decision.
But he will surely feel pressure to do so, said Rahat.
“I would say that he would probably prefer to wait until after the elections because he wouldn’t like to be blamed for influencing the elections or for trying to influence the elections,” he said.
With Israel’s centre-left opposition in disarray, Netanyahu’s main electoral threat appears to come from the right and centre.
His reputation as Israel’s “Mr. Security” accounts in large part for his electoral success, but it took a hit over a controversial Gaza ceasefire in November.
That truce led to the resignation of defence minister Avigdor Lieberman and the removal of his party’s five seats from the coalition, seen as the most right-wing in Israel’s history.
– ‘Pyrrhic victory’? –
Netanyahu worked then to hold the coalition together and has managed to do so until now.
There was speculation he wanted to wait to push for polls until anger over the ceasefire calmed.
After Monday’s announcement, Netanyahu faced fresh criticism over his argument in November that it would be irresponsible to go to elections because the country was facing a sensitive security situation.
It was an apparent reference to an upcoming military operation to destroy Hezbollah tunnels from Lebanon that was announced earlier this month.
Asked on Monday why now was a better time, Netanyahu said the operation was nearly complete.
Wildcard candidates could still emerge in the electoral campaign and pose a threat to Netanyahu.
Much of the focus was on former military chief of staff Benny Gantz, who polls show could do well, but he has given no word on his intentions.
While Netanyahu may succeed in his election gamble, the legal cases will remain and he will likely have to reckon with them eventually.
He “realised that the sand in the hourglass was running out,” political columnist Ben Caspit wrote in the Israeli newspaper Maariv.
“In my opinion, this might work, but will prove to be a pyrrhic victory. The clock will stop for a few minutes, making it possible for him to run for election, but it will resume ticking again energetically immediately afterwards.”