Wooing Trump Pays Off for Netanyahu as His Popularity Soars

(Bloomberg) -- Yoaz Hendel, a former adviser to Benjamin Netanyahu, has become one of his fiercest right-wing critics, denouncing his policies in columns and talk shows, and leading a rally against the corruption that’s allegedly permeated his government.

Now, even Hendel is reconsidering his views of the Israeli prime minister, impressed by his role in the transfer of the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem, the unraveling of the Iran nuclear deal, and Israel’s strikes against Iranian military forces in Syria. He’s not alone. Netanyahu’s popularity has surged in recent polls, overshadowing the graft probes that have already produced police recommendations to indict him in two cases.

“It’s not that anything’s changed in terms of his attempts to undermine our democracy and institutions,” said Hendel, who quit as the prime minister’s top spokesman in 2012. “But I need to recognize that the way he’s coping with strategic challenges are forcing me, and others on the right who were questioning his leadership, to think about his accomplishments as a statesman.”

Netanyahu’s grip on power is still potentially in jeopardy, and his political successes shouldn’t have a bearing on Attorney General Avihai Mandelblit’s decision whether to indict him in the corruption cases -- in theory at least. But it would take an especially aggressive attorney general to indict a popular, sitting prime minister for the first time in Israel’s history, said Eran Vigoda-Gadot, a political science professor at Haifa University.

Smoking Gun

“In order to put a sitting prime minister in jail, you need to come up with a smoking gun,” Vigoda-Gadot said. “We tend to think the separation of powers is strong enough to help the judicial system take independent decisions regardless of public opinion. But in reality, judges and attorneys general, without admitting it, are influenced by what happens around them.”

Just a few months ago, things were looking bleak for Netanyahu. Several former aides had agreed to testify against him, and as doubts about his political durability grew, right-wing rivals started positioning themselves for the post-Netanyahu era.

Today, gone are the headlines about gifts of pricey cigars and champagne from billionaires. European leaders have berated Israel for killing more than 120 Palestinians at sometimes violent protests in the Gaza Strip, but at home Netanyahu is widely seen as the forceful leader who persuaded Washington to pull out of the Iran nuclear deal and recognize contested Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. Next week, Netanyahu will fly to Berlin, Paris, and London, as he tries to persuade world leaders to turn up the pressure on Iran.

The election of the like-minded Trump came as a boon to Netanyahu, whose ties with the Obama administration had been strained over their divergent approaches on Iran and the Palestinians. During his campaign, Trump pledged to move the embassy and exit the Iran deal, and after he was elected, he delivered.

Israel’s strong economy, for which Netanyahu takes a lot of credit, has helped his standing, too. Gross domestic product has grown above 4 percent for three straight quarters and unemployment is near record lows. Investment in high-tech is high and tourism is booming.

“From the economy to security, Israelis realize they have it good, they don’t want a change at the top,” said Agriculture Minister Uri Ariel, whose Jewish Home party competes for right-wing voters with Netanyahu’s Likud. “Much of this is largely to his credit, and he’s now reaping the political benefits.”

Still Shaky

There are high risks to Netanyahu’s strategic accomplishments. Trump’s withdrawal from the Iran deal could backfire and increase conflict in the region. Rocket fire from the Gaza Strip, and retaliatory Israeli airstrikes, could widen into a war embroiling the West Bank and Jerusalem. And the threat still looms of a direct confrontation with Iran over its military presence in Syria.

Critics say there is another Netanyahu in addition to the one who has scored successes on the diplomatic stage -- one who poses a danger to Israeli democracy. The prime minister has railed against law enforcement and the media, accusing them of trying to depose his nationalist government. He’s also supported legislation meant to curb police powers, and media have reported he opposes extending the tenure of the police chief overseeing a total of four corruption investigations entangling his government.

Orchestrated Attempt

“There is a deliberate, orchestrated attempt to undermine the rule of law in Israel as the prime minister’s investigations draw close to an indictment,” Yair Lapid, chairman of the opposition Yesh Atid faction and Netanyahu’s chief rival in polls, said earlier this month. “And the one who’s leading the attack is the one who was supposed to protect it.”

Yet those accusations aren’t likely to sway Netanyahu’s governing partners or a constituency that has remained loyal even during his darkest days. Netanyahu, already 12 years on the job, may be on his way to becoming his country’s longest-serving prime minister.

“We are being bombarded by good news,” said Ran Baratz, another former Netanyahu aide. “The political forces that were positioning against him a few months ago understand that he’s now in full control again.”

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.

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