Graft charges hit Netanyahu reelection bid

By Wang Jin Source:Global Times Published: 2019/3/10 16:57:47

When Benjamin Netanyahu first became prime minister of Israel in 1996, nobody expected him to dominate the political arena for more than a decade and become an extension of Israel's political image. However, as he is suffering a serious political blow, it's uncertain whether he will be elected to a fifth term in office.

After investigations that continued for more than two years, Israel's Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit announced his decision in late February to indict Netanyahu for bribery, fraud and breach of trust in three separate cases. It would be the first time that an incumbent prime minister has been charged in the country's history.

Although Israel is a nation of only more than 8 million people, being a leader of the country is not an easy task. Israel has different ethnic and religious groups and internal frictions are common. The mistrust between the Jewish majority and Palestinian minority is so apparent that many Israeli Palestinian citizens perceive the government as a "Jewish dictatorship," while many Israeli Jews see Israeli Palestinian citizens as the "Fifth Column" in the state. 

Even within Israeli Jews, frictions remain. The gap between secular and religious Jews is wide, while differences between different ethnic groups, such as the Ashkenazi (Jewish people who migrated from Europe), the Latin Jewish groups Sephardi, Arab Jewish people Mizrahi (or literally the "Eastern Jews"), those from Africa and the Russian Jewish people, are also stark. 

Israel's internal feuds could be observed in its Knesset or parliament. Political parties are organized not only along ideologies but also along ethnic lines. 

There are 120 seats in the Knesset, and no single party has been able to win more than 60 seats in elections ever since modern Israel was founded in 1948. Different social, ethnic and ideological groups are usually interested in forming their own political parties. 

For example, the Shas party is a political group representing the interest of Sephardic Jewish communities. The right-wing "Jewish Home" represents the interest of Jewish settlers in East Jerusalem and the West Bank. 

It is not easy to find a leader who can unite the different political factions in a single cabinet, though Netanyahu has succeeded in doing that a number of times. He started his political career in the 1980s and became a right-wing Likud Knesset member in 1988. In 1993, he became the chairman of Likud and won the Knesset election to become the prime minister in 1996. He lost elections in 1999, but returned to politics in 2002. In 2009, he won the Knesset election and became the prime minister again. For the last 10 years, Netanyahu has been at the helm of Likud and Israel.

The key to Netanyahu's political success could be attributed to his image of the Israeli "Mr. Security." Netanyahu always highlights different external threats, ranging from Hamas in the Gaza Strip to Iran, Hezbollah in Lebanon to Tehran-backed Shia militant groups in Syria. Netanyahu emphasizes that Israel's occupation of Golan Heights is legitimate but avoids launching full-blown wars against the militant groups Hamas in Gaza and Hezbollah in Lebanon. 

Netanyahu always regards Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and is not willing to concede too much at the negotiation table in talks with Palestinian representatives. During Netanyahu's time, Israel built extensive Jewish settlements in the West Bank to strengthen claims on the area and undermine the Palestinian cause. 

In recent years, Netanyahu tried to reach out to Arab states led by Saudi Arabia to resist the influence of Iran in the Middle East. Netanyahu became the first Israeli leader to visit Oman, an important Gulf Arab state. The presidency of Donald Trump makes Netanyahu enjoy a reliable and close friend in Washington. Trump's recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and the decision to move the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem increased Netanyahu's popularity at home. 

Although Netanyahu denies all charges and insists he is innocent, the indictment has affected his political image and might hurt him in the upcoming Knesset election in early April. 

Meanwhile, new challengers emerge ahead of the vote. The centrist Yesh Atid (There Is a Future) party has joined hands with Moshe Ya'alon, former Israeli defense minister, and Benny Gantz, former chief of general staff of the Israel Defense Forces, to give birth to the Blue and White Party. 

As Netahyahu's image has been dented by the indictment, a poll says the Blue and White might become the most powerful party in the forthcoming election.

The author is a research fellow at the Syria Research Center, Northwest University in Xi'an, Shaanxi Province.

Posted in: VIEWPOINT

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