Netanyahu brushes past obstacles, appears to climb to peak of power
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-onone 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 last week 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, last week’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 its 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 said in an interview with The Associated Press.
The prime minister got more good news when two leading left-leaning opposition parties staged a public divorce and announced that they will not cooperate in the coming vote.