Israeli police want him to be indicted in three separate corruption cases. He’s assailed from left and right for his attacks on Gaza and his policy in the West Bank. He’s made a point of cosying up to controversial right-wing nationalist leaders, from Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro to Hungary’s Viktor Orban – and especially to Donald Trump. Many American Jewish leaders say his policies are driving away Diaspora Jews.
And if April’s Israeli election were held today, Benjamin Netanyahu would almost definitely win, for the fourth time in a row, probably in a landslide.
Why? Because enough Israelis trust him with their security. To his voters, everything else is commentary.
“They think that if he may have received bribes or played with Israel’s telecom market to have personal gain, this has nothing to do with the way he confronts Iran or the way he handles things in Syria,” says Israeli political journalist Tal Schneider, referring to some of the corruption allegations against Netanyahu. “In Israel, you win elections on security issues only.”
Polls ahead of the 9 April election give Netanyahu’s Likud a wide lead over a growing group of opponents. Likud is projected to win around 30 seats in the 120-seat Knesset, putting Netanyahu in the best position to form a ruling coalition.
Netanyahu’s international critics – the UN, European Union, the former Obama administration, liberal American Jewish groups, liberal newspapers – have portrayed him as too aggressive in Gaza, too cavalier with the lives of Palestinian civilians and unwilling to make peace with the Palestinian Authority, not to mention his policies on African asylum seekers, religious pluralism in Israel or the status of Arab Israelis.
But in Israel, polls show most Jews think Netanyahu is not aggressive enough in Gaza. In November, his defence minister resigned, complaining Netanyahu was too risk-averse in deploying the military. When it comes to the army, his centrist rivals have only tried to talk tougher than the prime minister.
Two former Israeli generals, both chiefs of staff, have founded new parties this year specifically to oppose Netanyahu. But so far, neither is attacking him directly on security issues. Moshe Yaalon, one of Netanyahu’s former defence ministers, says his party would represent “the good, values-based, clean-handed land of Israel.”
Benny Gantz, a former general, has only just begun to open up about his platform. In a television interview, he said he would leave several West Bank settlement blocs in place but that an agreement with the Palestinians would bolster Israel’s security.
“We need established, ongoing efforts, in light of any challenge, to reach a diplomatic accord, with the understanding that this is part of our resilience, this is part of our security,” Gantz said. “There needs to be a real diplomatic effort, without being suckers and without being irresponsible.”
A chorus of other candidates has also failed to match Netanyahu at the polls. Yair Lapid, a one-time TV star and finance minister who leads the centrist Yesh Atid Party, has a strong base but hasn’t been able to broaden his appeal. The once-robust Labour Party, headed by former telecom executive Avi Gabbay, is mired in the single digits.
Netanyahu’s main problems lately have been the potential indictments against him and a growing aura of corruption. Former prime minister Ehud Olmert, who ended up going to prison, resigned before police recommended that he be indicted. But Netanyahu shows no signs of backing down. He has vowed to remain even if charged formally with a crime.
Will that cost him the election? Probably not. Netanyahu frequently demonises the Israeli press, often claiming like Trump that negative articles are “fake news”.
At this point, one observer wrote, Israelis are just tired of the back-and-forth. Netanyahu’s opponents, as well as government watchdogs, have called his decisions dangerous to Israel’s democracy. But if Israelis are feeling squeamish, it isn’t showing in the polls.
“There’s so much news about Netanyahu’s investigations that they don’t take it seriously anymore,” the same critic noted.
Netanyahu’s last election campaign, in 2015, was also plagued with scandal – though he was not indicted. Leading up to Election Day, it appeared he could lose. But he pulled off a comeback, emerging stronger position than before. And the longer he stays in power, Schneider says, the more inevitable his victories seem.
In Israel, there are no term limits. “The people of Israel don’t see anyone else in Israel who can do it,” she adds. “With the time passing, he’s getting stronger and stronger because when you sit in that chair you’re the incumbent. You can use all the facilities available to keep promoting yourself.”