Ne­tanyahu brushes past ob­sta­cles, ap­pears to climb to peak of power

The Washington Times Weekly - - Geopolitics - BY SETH FRANTZMAN

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.


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