By Simon Fischer
Israel’s Attorney General, Avichai Mandelblit, announced recently that his office plans to indict Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on corruption charges after a two-year investigation, and he is being formally charged with one count of corruption and three counts of “breach of trust”. The charges are still pending a hearing and further investigation, but the move came just a month before the country’s general election, and his primary challenger Benny Gantz has already called for him to resign. Netanyahu is most seriously accused of accepting gifts from wealthy donors and businessmen in exchange for pushing favorable legislation, as well as trading legislation for favorable coverage from a major newspaper. He has slammed the allegations, but the announcement throws a wrench in Netanyahu’s quest for a fifth term as Prime Minister.
The timing of the announcement is perhaps the most critical aspect of this development. The election is now a little more than a week away, and it will remain to be seen how this impacts the public’s trust and approval of him. This is not the first time such charges have been recommended against him, but this is the first time in Israeli history that a sitting prime minister faces criminal charges of this nature, which could have a serious effect on the election results if the indictment lingers through April. He has slammed the indictment as a partisan attack, even though Mandelblit is his former Cabinet Secretary. His party, the Likud Party, has also unsuccessfully petitioned Israel’s High Court to stop the release of the indictment, claiming that it would unfairly influence the election. They are right in claiming it will influence the election, but the fairness of the indictment is so far unclear.
If Bibi survives the scandal and does, in fact, win reelection, this could have a significant impact on non-Orthodox Jews, who make up a majority of the population of American Jews. The United Torah Judaism Party, an alliance of right-wing ultra-Orthodox political parties, has said it will likely support legislation that would protect Netanyahu from the corruption indictment if he is willing to forge a governing coalition with them and other highly Orthodox parties. This would not only mean he could be exempt from these potential charges but would also likely mean he will pursue legislation favorable to the Orthodox parties, who historically have not been kind to non-Orthodox sects of Judaism such as the Reform and Conservative sects.
Netanyahu has previously caved to these parties by canceling an agreement to provide a prayer space for non-Orthodox Jews at the Western Wall, and if the alliance supports legislation guaranteeing him immunity, there’s no telling how much more he could concede to them. Meanwhile, despite his actions that could potentially upset American Jews, Netanyahu has received a rousing reception each time he has spoken at the AIPAC conference in Washington, D.C., the keynote event of the leading American-Israeli-relationship lobbying organization.
To me, it does not seem like Americans really care about his political alliances or dealings as much as Israelis do, as long as the overall health of the US-Israel relationship remains strong. Similarly, Israel has strongly supported Donald Trump because of his handling of the relationship, despite his tumbling approval rating in the states. Netanyahu’s reelection could create a potential crisis for these non-Orthodox Jews, but I believe the relatively large and influential group of them in the US has been quietly ignorant of this, content with simply giving Netanyahu large ovations at his AIPAC speeches. The newest wave of corruption charges against him, though, could take him out of office for good and might change the prospects of non-Orthodox Jews in Israel and abroad.