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Is Netanyahu Toast?

TEL AVIV — “He’s a magician! He’s a magician!”

It was nearly 2 a.m. on April 10, and supporters of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who had packed a sporting arena in Tel Aviv, were cheering his apparent election victory.

Facing a stiff challenge from a former military chief and the prospect of criminal indictment on corruption charges, Mr. Netanyahu, whose unrivaled political instincts had him on track to become Israel’s longest-serving prime minister, had pulled another rabbit out of his hat.

Less than two months later, after his failure to assemble a governing coalition forced the country into an unprecedented do-over election, Israeli pundits are asking whether even magic can save him now.

With the new election still more than three months away, no one is foolish enough to write him off altogether. But the math and the calendar are unforgiving.

Mr. Netanyahu claimed to have lined up 60 seats in his coalition during the past week. He needed 61 for a majority in Israel’s 120-seat Parliament.

There is little reason to assume that the outcome would be any better when the new election is held on Sept. 17. With his ability to form a government now in doubt, it could well be worse.

Then there is the issue of the indictments.

Mr. Netanyahu is facing charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust in three corruption cases. The attorney general has scheduled a hearing for early October where Mr. Netanyahu, who denies the accusations and rejects the prosecution as a partisan witch hunt, can contest the charges.

Indictments could come soon after.

That creates two big problems for Mr. Netanyahu.

First, even if he wins the election, he would have trouble signing up coalition partners with indictments hanging over his head. In theory, the law does not prevent a prime minister from serving while under indictment, but that has never happened before.

It is possible that the Supreme Court could intervene. There would also be tremendous pressure for him to step down.

The second problem is calendrical. Mr. Netanyahu’s escape plan required Parliament to grant him immunity and to pass a law allowing it to overrule a possible Supreme Court judgment reversing that immunity.

With Parliament adjourned until after the election, the chances of getting such laws passed before he is indicted are not high.

On Thursday, the day Parliament dissolved, setting in motion a new election, “the countdown to the end of the Netanyahu era began,” the veteran political columnist Yossi Verter wrote in the liberal newspaper Haaretz.

Amit Segal, the chief political analyst of Israel’s Channel 12 News, said that the dissolution of Parliament and the new election “created a real danger that he will not be able to escape prosecution.”

“If a government had been formed this week,” Mr. Segal said in an interview, “he would probably have managed to get the case against him dropped.”

Mr. Netanyahu’s political obituary has been written many times before: in 1996, when the polls said, incorrectly, that he had lost to Shimon Peres; in 1999, when he lost to Ehud Barak and announced his retirement from politics; in 2006, when his conservative Likud party won only 12 seats.

Each time he has returned from the dead. He has served three consecutive terms as prime minister, four altogether, for a total of 13 years. In July, he will surpass the record of Israel’s founding father and first premier, David Ben Gurion.

But his options have narrowed considerably.

In the April election, Mr. Netanyahu himself was already the primary campaign issue. His main challenger was Benny Gantz, a former military chief whose centrist Blue and White party ran on a platform with few substantive differences with Mr. Netanyahu beyond the fact that Mr. Gantz was not Mr. Netanyahu.

Mr. Gantz’s party, which won 35 seats, said it would consider joining a coalition with Likud but not with Mr. Netanyahu as its leader.

If the previous election was a referendum on Mr. Netanyahu, the September election is likely to be a repeat, but with a more damaged candidate and even less margin for error.

Uzi Arad, Mr. Netanyahu’s former national security adviser and now a critic, says that as Mr. Netanyahu accrued power, he became careless and arrogant, leaving him with fewer and fewer allies.

“His demise may occur because of the toxicity of his leadership style, characterized by impulsiveness, shooting from the hip, surrounding himself with sycophants of modest abilities, using divide and rule on all levels, a style that had led many to turn against him,” Professor Arad said.

Now even his right-wing base may be having second thoughts.

“People on the right — at the moment only in closed conversations — are beginning to think that Netanyahu may have brought them victory, but also the resounding failure that happened later, and that perhaps the time has come to find a successor,” said Yohanan Plesner, president of the Israel Democracy Institute, a nonpartisan research institute. “King Bibi might no longer be invincible.”

Mr. Netanyahu blamed Avigdor Lieberman, leader of the small ultranationalist Yisrael Beitenu party, for denying him victory. Mr. Netanyahu had counted on the party’s five seats to give him a majority.

But Mr. Lieberman refused to compromise with Mr. Netanyahu’s ultra-Orthodox coalition partners over a new law that would eliminate the wholesale exemptions for ultra-Orthodox men to serve in the military.

Some analysts said that Mr. Lieberman’s position was a ploy to gain attention for his small party. But whatever his motives, he has exposed a real fault line in the traditional right-wing coalition between the secular nationalists and the ultra-Orthodox parties.

Analysts say there is a narrow path Mr. Netanyahu could take to succeed in the next election.

Mr. Segal said that about 300,000 right-wing votes went to parties that did not make the threshold for parliamentary seats. Those votes represent up to eight possible seats, more than enough to put Mr. Netanyahu over the top if they can be funneled into Likud or others parties that support him.

If he wins the election, he would also have to form a government quickly enough to pass a law protecting him from prosecution and willing to do so.

Mr. Verter says that’s not possible. Mr. Segal says it is, barely.

“Before every election campaign, everyone here eulogized Netanyahu,” Mr. Segal said. “They say this is the end, that he is finished, but he comes back to life, surprises them all and wins. My advice to the Israeli political analysts is therefore, even if you see Netanyahu’s political corpse in front of you, and three medical experts say he is dead, wait. It is not certain that this is really the end.”

Source: NYT > World

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