Scandals, Rivals and U.S. Tarnish Netanyahu’s Aura of Invincibility

JERUSALEM — Younger rivals in his Likud Party are circling overhead. Bombshell exposés on the nightly news have returned his looming indic...

JERUSALEM — Younger rivals in his Likud Party are circling overhead. Bombshell exposés on the nightly news have returned his looming indictment on corruption charges to the forefront.

Even Benjamin Netanyahu’s undisputed advantage over every challenger, his primacy on the international stage as Israel’s longest-serving prime minister, has lately been a source of as much embarrassment as luster.

With two weeks until a do-over election that was forced on the country by his inability to form a government after coming out on top in the April ballot, Mr. Netanyahu’s larger-than-life persona has lost something that made his re-elections once seem inevitable.

The aura of indispensability has faded.

Evidence keeps piling up: Last month, Gilad Erdan, the 48-year-old minister of strategic affairs, turned down an appointment as ambassador to the United Nations. Publicly, he said he wanted to stay in Israel to help Likud prevail in the Sept. 17 election. Privately, he made it known he did not want to be stuck in New York during a possible battle to succeed Mr. Netanyahu as party leader.

That was after Mr. Netanyahu felt compelled to require Likud lawmakers to sign a loyalty oath vowing that Mr. Netanyahu was and would remain the party’s only candidate, “regardless of the election results.”

Last week, Avigdor Lieberman — who forced the repeat election by refusing to join the ultrareligious parties in Mr. Netanyahu’s coalition — disclosed that he had met with senior Likud officials about dumping Mr. Netanyahu as the party’s standard-bearer if he failed to emerge from the election with a viable governing coalition of 61 seats in the 120-seat Parliament.

“At least two-thirds of the party is praying that Netanyahu does not get 61 seats,” Mr. Lieberman told the Ynet news site.

Mr. Lieberman’s claim may be overblown but Likud did not dispute it. And analysts said it had the ring of truth.

“Everybody knows, including people in Likud, that there’s more chance than ever that this is the end of the Bibi era,” said Gadi Wolfsfeld, a veteran political scientist and professor of communication at the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya. “He’s more vulnerable now than ever before.”

Nor is Mr. Netanyahu gaining much relief in the diplomatic realm, long his most comfortable terrain. While in April he could point to important achievements, like the shift of the American embassy to Jerusalem and President Trump’s recognition of Israeli sovereignty in the Golan Heights, Mr. Netanyahu is licking his wounds now from back-to-back humiliations thanks to the White House.

He bowed to Mr. Trump’s pressure last month in barring two Democratic members of Congress from visiting Israel, reversing his own decision and inflaming politics in both countries. Then Mr. Trump raised the idea of opening talks with Iran, blindsiding Mr. Netanyahu, for whom the president’s abandonment of the Iran nuclear deal was his proudest moment. And when Mr. Netanyahu reportedly tried frantically to urge the president against a meeting with Iran, he could not get Mr. Trump on the phone.

A quick trip to Ukraine, seen as potentially aiding Mr. Netanyahu with Russian-speaking voters, accomplished little except a minor flap when the prime minister’s wife tossed a traditional bread offering onto the tarmac in Kiev, offending their hosts.

Domestically, the news has been particularly unkind to Mr. Netanyahu over the past week, just as Israelis were sending their children back to school and reluctantly focusing on another election campaign.

Last week, Israel’s Channel 12 divulged that the prime minister had personally instructed a loyal confidant — now a star witness against him — to reward a friendly telecommunications tycoon with favors worth hundreds of millions of dollars. He is accused of doing so in exchange for fawning coverage in the telecom’s news subsidiary. Mr. Netanyahu had previously insisted that he had only approved the recommendations of civil servants in the communications ministry.

Then on Monday, Channel 13 aired a recording of Mr. Netanyahu berating Ayoub Kara, then his communications minister, and interfering in regulatory policy in 2017, months after Mr. Netanyahu had been forced by the Supreme Court to resign as communications minister himself because of the pending investigations.

“Are you crazy?” he is heard yelling at Mr. Kara for having made the mistake of publicly sharing credit for saving a right-wing TV channel with Ayelet Shaked, a rival minister who is persona non grata to the Netanyahus. The recording drew instant comparisons to a similarly unflattering recording of his wife that surfaced last year.

It was perhaps more telling that the recording surfaced at all, suggesting that people presumed to be loyal to Mr. Netanyahu were not only taping their calls with him, but leaking those recordings when it could do him the most damage.

“That’s another sign that there are people in the party that believe it’s time for him to go,” said Mr. Wolfsfeld, the political scientist.

Rivals have pounced on both reports, and seized on the prime minister’s push to get his would-be coalition partners to agree to grant him immunity from prosecution. Mr. Netanyahu scored an important victory on that front over the weekend when leaders of Ms. Shaked’s party signaled they would go along with such a move.

But center-left parties have been pounding away, suggesting in ads that Mr. Netanyahu’s desperation to avoid prison was driving him to hand over key ministries, including education and transportation, to ultrareligious leaders seen as extremists by many secular Israelis.

Mr. Netanyahu may also be pushing uphill. By doubling down with his ultrareligious allies, Netanyahu has confronted voters with a stark choice for their next government. They can go with him, and expect an even more religiously conservative and nationalist coalition, if he can eke one out. Or they can opt for the national unity government that Mr. Lieberman is calling for and that leaders of the Blue and White Party, which is neck and neck with Likud, have said they would embrace, provided Likud first throws Mr. Netanyahu overboard.

A poll released by the Israel Democracy Institute on Tuesday showed only 27 percent of Israelis want a right-wing government led by Mr. Netanyahu. Nearly twice as many preferred either a unity government led by Mr. Netanyahu or Benny Gantz of Blue and White, or a center-left coalition led by Mr. Gantz.

For all the trouble he faces, Mr. Netanyahu still remains neck and neck with Mr. Gantz, and holds a slim edge in assembling a coalition, though polls show him several seats shy of 61, potentially leaving him at Mr. Lieberman’s mercy.

Damaging stories about Mr. Netanyahu like the leaked recording that surfaced Monday do not necessarily harm him with his supporters, who see the Israeli news media as synonymous with the leftist “elite” and out to get him, said Yossi Verter, a political columnist at Haaretz.

“It won’t harm him with the base, and when he’s attacked by the left and the press, with demands for an investigation, it only helps,” Mr. Verter said. “There are even claims that he himself leaked it.”

Mr. Netanyahu also has tools at his disposal that his challengers do not. He squeezed ample advantage from Israel’s confrontation with Hezbollah and other Iran-backed militias in Syria, Iraq and Lebanon over the past week, for example.

And there is still the possibility that Mr. Trump will try to put his thumb on the scale with another political gift. Mr. Netanyahu said Tuesday that he hoped to arrange a trilateral meeting with the United States and Russia to discuss Iran and Syria, giving rise to speculation that the American participant could be Mr. Trump himself.

Mr. Verter sounded an alternative theory: that Mr. Trump would grant a Netanyahu request to put Jonathan Pollard, the convicted Israeli spy who has been seeking to move to Israel, on a plane to Tel Aviv.

Those too certain of a Netanyahu defeat, Mr. Verter said, should keep in mind the old joke about his Houdini-like ability to evade disaster: “He gets hit and hit and hit, and finally he wins.”

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Newsrust - US Top News: Scandals, Rivals and U.S. Tarnish Netanyahu’s Aura of Invincibility
Scandals, Rivals and U.S. Tarnish Netanyahu’s Aura of Invincibility
Newsrust - US Top News
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