Don't Say Goodbye to Israel's Benjamin Netanyahu Just Yet

(Bloomberg) -- Criminal charges seem to be looming, but don’t count Benjamin Netanyahu out: Chances are good that he’ll form Israel’s next government.

A fragmented political system, many undecided voters and the stature that comes with 13 years in office could converge with a loyal base to hand Israel’s prime minister a fifth term on April 9. And though the attorney general plans to indict Netanyahu for bribery and fraud, a decision is months away.

“During his lengthy career, he has had this Teflon quality to him, where these things bounce right off,” said Sarah Yerkes, a fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, who served in the U.S. State Department’s office of Israel and Palestinian affairs. “He is Trump before Trump.”

Fitch Solutions, just before the attorney general released a draft indictment last week, put the odds of a Netanyahu victory at 75 percent. It predicted such an outcome would likely see Israel "continuing to veer to the right on regional security and Palestinian issues, while making efforts to maintain a pro-business environment.”

Netanyahu’s ability to weather the storm could have a profound influence in a Middle East that’s realigning as the U.S. confronts Iran and prepares to present its formula for regional peace. He has labored to contain Iran’s influence and sideline the Palestinians’ quest for statehood as ties with Gulf Arab states warm, often finding a sympathetic ear in Trump’s White House.

Neck-and-Neck

Immediately after Attorney General Avihai Mandelblit told Netanyahu last week he plans to put him on trial, polls that had favored his Likud party swung to give a small edge to a bloc led by Blue & White. Its co-chairman, former military chief Benny Gantz, provides the security gravitas important to Israeli voters and a clean-hands image that contrasts with the taint of corruption surrounding Netanyahu.

By Tuesday, only one of three surveys showed Gantz’s bloc besting Netanyahu’s alliance of nationalist and religious parties.

During the campaign, Netanyahu will continue to characterize the attorney general’s investigation as a left-wing “witch hunt” and his supporters will likely continue to accept that, the Eurasia Group think tank said in a report. And later this month, Netanyahu will flaunt his diplomatic credentials during a likely meeting with President Donald Trump in Washington.

Political Rookie

Gantz, who’s leading Blue & White with former Finance Minister Yair Lapid, spent 38 of his 59 years in the military and has never held public office.

“Netanyahu is acting the prime minister and he enjoys greater attention in the media, he can use policy to demonstrate his popularity,” said Ofer Zalzberg, senior analyst at the International Crisis Group research center. “All of these things are things that Gantz can’t do.”

Hours before the polls closed in the previous election in 2015, Netanyahu convened a last-minute news conference and boosted right-wing turnout by warning that Arab citizens were “going to the polls in droves.” He’s playing that card again, warning that the centrist Blue & White -- which his campaign calls “leftist” -- would rely on Arab parties to put together a government.

“Of course it’s an effective strategy -- saying they’re on the left and rely on Arabs,” said Camil Fuchs, a professor emeritus of statistics involved in polling. “That’s the message in the campaign.”

Stable Bloc

No single party has ever won a majority in Israel’s history, meaning the country has always been run by coalitions. What’s key is which faction can put together the most stable bloc and that isn’t always the best-performing party.

An electoral threshold that’s been raised over the years could also deliver surprises. It’s not clear which of the dozen or so parties in serious contention will pass the bar of 3.25 percent of the vote.

Polls show Blue & White winning about 36 of parliament’s 120 seats, to about 30 for Likud. But Netanyahu seems to have a clearer path to building a narrow coalition. Blue & White, by contrast, can count only on about 50 lawmakers, according to polls. It would have to rely in parliament on support from Arab factions, which would not be in a government, because right-wing religious parties have said they won’t sit with Blue & White.

“There’s a high chance they’ll be the largest party," said Fuchs, “and a very small chance they’ll create a coalition.”

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