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Israel's April Elections Preview: Can Netanyahu Survive to Become the Longest-Serving Prime Minister?

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Photo, CBN News

JERUSALEM, Israel–The nation's Attorney-General Avichal Mandelblit delivered unwelcome news Friday to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his attorneys. Mandelblit dismissed arguments from the Netanyahu camp and said he will announce whether his office plans to indict the prime minister before the country's national elections on April 9th.

Many observers expect the attorney-general to indict Netanyahu in at least one of four criminal investigations that have been ongoing since 2016.

If that happens, Netanyahu will become the first sitting prime minister to try to win another term under such a cloud of suspicion.  It may, therefore, come as a surprise to many around the world that he remains the favorite, at least for now, to form the next government. 

Netanyahu has currently served longer than any prime minister in Israel's modern history except for the first man to hold the office: the revered leader David Ben-Gurion. If he wins another term he would surpass Ben-Gurion in July, indictment or not.

Standing in Netanyahu's way are most members of the Israeli media, a team of police and legal investigators who have launched 22 investigations concerning the prime minister and his wife Sara since he won his first term in 1996, and the Israeli political opposition from the left and center, many of whom are desperate to see him removed from power.

Former Jerusalem Post columnist Caroline Glick told CBN News in December she sees some similarities between the criminal probes of Netanyahu and the Special Counsel investigation of US President Donald Trump. 

"They can't find an underlying crime and so they're trying to go on 'process' crimes." Glick insists that in the case of Netanyahu and the communications company Bezeq, for which he is most likely to be indicted for bribery, what Netanyahu did was "manifestly legal." And the state is trying to do this, she contends, "in order to unseat a sitting prime minister."  

Glick herself decided to run for the Knesset in the upcoming elections, not with Netanyahu's Likud Party, but with a new party started by Education Minister Naftali Bennett.

This past week, former Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Benny Gantz made his first speech as a candidate for prime minister. His presence and stature (he's 6 ft. 5 inches tall). along with his strong security record, have vaulted him to the upper echelon of the polls. 

There is talk that Gantz's center-left Resilience Party will merge with the party led by another former IDF Chief of Staff, Moshe Ya'alon and the secular Yesh Atid party led by Yair Lapid to form a coalition that could overtake Netanyahu's Likud Party. Still, Gantz is a political novice, and with more than two months until election day he faces plenty of potential pitfalls.

Meanwhile, Netanyahu is urging the smaller political parties on the right, parties he might need to form a governing coalition, to merge so they will not drop below the 3.5 percent threshold of the vote. Any party falling below that threshold is disqualified from the Knesset.

Netanyahu's Likud is also taking on the media. One campaign billboard on a major highway shows the pictures of four Israeli print and television journalists with the caption, "They won't decide, you will decide. Despite them, Netanyahu!"

Some media members call the prime minister "paranoid," but his supporters say he has good reason. Nearly 20 years ago, my colleagues and I saw the "anti-Bibi" bias in action.

During Netanyahu's first re-election campaign as prime minister in 1999, three of then-US President Bill Clinton's top aides, political strategists James Carville and Bob Shrum, along with his pollster Stanley Greenberg, arrived in Israel to help boost the campaign of Netanyahu's rival, Ehud Barak. (Talk about a blatant attempt to influence another country's election!)

It worked.  CBN News Middle East Bureau Chief Chris Mitchell (who was then a state-side correspondent), Michael Patrick, CBN's news director at the time, and I were here on assignment in May, 1999, at a large center for journalists from around the world when the Israeli TV stations aired the news of Barak's election night victory. 

We literally had to get out of the way as crowds of journalists began shouting, dancing in the hallways, hopping up on tables and hugging to celebrate Netanyahu's defeat. They immediately made plans to get to Tel Aviv for the victory speeches.

in March of 2015, six years after Netanyahu returned to the prime minister's office, leftist politicians and journalists were hoping for another celebration as polls showed Netanyahu headed for possible defeat. This time, then-President Barack Obama's State Department funneled nearly $350,000 to Netanyahu's opponents through a project called OneVote. 

On election night, March 17, Netanyahu pulled off a surprisingly strong victory. As his supporters danced and waved flags in Likud Party headquarters, journalists cursed and exclaimed how depressing the whole scene was to witness.

So what will this next election bring on April 9th, with the likelihood that the attorney-general will indict and a virtual guarantee that media coverage will be hostile to the prime minister?

Until now, support for Netanyahu has held fairly firm, especially among voters on the right. He has to be wary of the fatigue factor against a sitting prime minister who has been in office for nearly a decade. 

The reality of an indictment, if and when it happens, could hit home with voters and cause his popularity to plunge.  

On the other hand, it could create a backlash, spurring security-minded voters, nervous about the threats from Iran, Hezbollah and Hamas, and angry at the glacial pace of the investigations and the constant negativity of the press, to circle the wagons around Netanyahu.

In any case, Benjamin Netanyahu will occupy center stage through the rest of the Israeli election cycle, much as his counterpart at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue is doing in Washington.

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