- - Monday, January 7, 2019

JERUSALEM — On a trip to Brazil to ring in the new year, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was riding high.

Cheering crowds greeted him as he met with Brazilian President-elect Jair Bolsonaro, who has hinted that Brazil will join the Trump administration in moving its embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. In a separate one-on-one meeting with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Mr. Netanyahu was assured of U.S. support against Iranian threats despite the pending American troop withdrawal from Syria.

Back home, however, the path was not so smooth. Israel’s pugnacious leader is facing a national election in April as he seeks a record fifth term in office that would extend his remarkable dominance on the political scene.

For all the obstacles in his path — including voter fatigue and a corruption investigation he cannot shake — the early betting is that Mr. Netanyahu is not going anywhere.

With national elections due by November, Mr. Netanyahu called early elections on Dec. 24. A poll by Israel Hayom showed the prime minister’s Likud Party coming in first with 28 seats in the 120-seat Knesset. That would be a slight decrease from the 30 seats Likud won in 2015, but Likud has solidified its position in polls with none of the other competing parties getting more than half of Likud’s total.



Mr. Netanyahu has been on the attack since the election date was solidified. He used a nationally televised address Monday to complain about the investigation and what he said was the prosecutors’ refusal to allow him to confront his accusers.

“I wanted to look them in the eyes and show them the truth. I asked twice and was rejected …,” Mr. Netanyahu said. “What do they have to be afraid of? What are they hiding? I am not afraid. I do not have [anything] to hide.”

The Justice Ministry said it would be inappropriate to make public key parts of the investigation before it wraps up, and Mr. Netanyahu’s political opponents slammed his demands as a political stunt.

“In a normal country, the prime minister would not behave in such a way,” Avi Gabbay, head of the center-left Labor Party, posted on Twitter. “Instead of caring about the security of residents of the south, about the cost of living or the deteriorating health system, Netanyahu is busy saving himself from investigations.”

Still, Monday’s episode demonstrated one near certainty about the election: For all the issues and rival candidates, the campaign will once again focus almost entirely on Mr. Netanyahu.

Even as he fights off the graft investigation and deals with an unsettled regional situation, the prime minister appears to be at the peak of his power.

In November, he took over the job of defense minister after hawkish Avigdor Liberman resigned, and he is also serving as foreign minister. Israel’s economy is growing faster than any other country in the Organization for Co-operation and Economic Development, the defense industry is flourishing, and the country has faced down security threats in Gaza and along the northern border, where it recently launched an operation against Hezbollah tunnels from Lebanon.

Mr. Netanyahu has cultivated unprecedented support from the Trump administration, and recent visits by the prime minister to Oman — as well as other Israeli ministers to the United Arab Emirates — suggest that Israel is breaking down the diplomatic isolation it has long faced from key Arab states.

A November poll by the Israel Democracy Institute showed that 46 percent of Israelis see Mr. Netanyahu, 69, as their preferred candidate. Renewing alliances with nationalist and ultra-Orthodox parties, Likud seems on course to get the seats it needs to form a government once again.

Netanyahu is a bloc player, not an individual player. All he cares about is getting 61,” political commentator Amit Segal told The Associated Press last week.

The prime minister got more good news last week when two leading left-leaning opposition parties staged a public divorce and announced that they will not cooperate in the coming vote.

Rivals for power

Still, perilous shoals lie ahead for Mr. Netanyahu with the election months away.

Among them are the looming corruption investigations. A slight majority of Israelis think the prime minister should step down if he is indicted before the elections, but few think he would.

Although the left is divided, Mr. Netanyahu has election rivals and many voters in the past year have signaled that they are open to alternatives to the traditional parties.

The main challenger is likely Benny Gantz, a former military chief of staff who has formed the Israel Resilience Party. Another former chief of staff, Moshe Ya’alon, has formed a party called Telem. Education Minister Naftali Bennett and Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked left their Jewish Home Party to create a party called Hayamin Hehadash (The New Right).

The Labor Party, traditionally the primary opposition to Likud, appears on the verge of collapse. Most recent polls project it to win only seven seats.

A variety of other parties, including the centrist Yesh Atid, led by a popular former journalist, and religious and Arab parties on the right and left will all compete, with most polling in the single digits.

Mr. Netanyahu “will win the elections. There is hardly any doubt he will make it once more,” said the IDI’s Tamar Hermann, a professor at the Open University of Israel. “If he fails to, it means there is some tectonic change in the Israeli [political] landscape.”

Another electoral victory could give the wily Mr. Netanyahu unprecedented influence and longevity in Israeli politics, Ms. Hermann said.

Mr. Netanyahu came to office in March 2009. Analysts said the only other Israeli prime minister to wield such influence was David Ben-Gurion, who played the leading role in founding the state in 1948 and held the top job — with one brief interruption — until 1963. Ms. Hermann noted that Ben-Gurion was surrounded by a variety of rising stars but Mr. Netanyahu has stayed in power by pushing away potential successors.

Mr. Netanyahu has been referred to as “King Bibi,” playing off his Hebrew nickname, but in Israel, he is often seen as “Mr. Security,” a reflection of the relative peace and quiet in the country under his tenure. Israel has waged wars with Hamas in Gaza in 2012 and 2014, but Israeli casualties from terrorism have greatly declined.

The security forces prevented 500 terrorist attacks last year, Mr. Netanyahu said in early December. In November, Israel’s Iron Dome air defense system kept most of the 460 rockets launched by Hamas from hitting civilian areas. This is a major change from decades when suicide bombings, rockets and other terrorist attacks killed hundreds of Israelis.

Iran remains a security threat, though Tehran is under increased pressure after President Trump’s withdrawal of the U.S. from the 2015 nuclear deal that Mr. Netanyahu harshly condemned.

Waiting for a peace plan

The Netanyahu government has also been bracing for the vaunted Israeli-Palestinian peace plan that White House aide and presidential son-in-law Jared Kushner is putting together. Although Israeli officials have worked closely with U.S. counterparts on the plan, the final proposal could call for Mr. Netanyahu to make some politically unpalatable steps.

But Mr. Netanyahu said in Brazil last week that it appeared the White House was willing to hold off on announcing the plan until after “It is their calculation — and I am not sure they are wrong — that allowing a discussion about the peace plan after the elections in Israel is better than having such a discussion before an election when the whole debate will be totally different,” he told reporters.

The grinding corruption investigation may be the biggest wild card in the campaign.

Israeli police recommended indicting the prime minister in early December on charges of bribery and fraud. It is one of three cases in which they have recommended indictments, but it is still not clear whether Mr. Netanyahu will be indicted or whether he will resign if he is.

Ms. Hermann said Mr. Netanyahu can drag out any legal proceeding, and polls show the investigations have not eroded his political base.

The prime minister has launched a pre-emptive strike against any corruption indictment. Last week, he accused his political opponents and the left-leaning media of applying “brutal and inhuman pressure” on legal officials to expedite the case so he can be indicted before the April 9 vote.

The left’s agenda, Mr. Netanyahu charged in the video, “is clear: to oust a prime minister by throwing a field trial and hijacking the elections from you, the citizens of Israel.”

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