Tel Aviv, Israel: “He’s a magician! He’s a magician!”
It was nearly 2 a.m. on April 10, and supporters of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who had packed a sporting arena in Tel Aviv, were cheering his apparent election victory.
Facing a stiff challenge from a former military chief and the prospect of criminal indictment on corruption charges, Netanyahu, whose unrivaled political instincts had him on track to become Israel’s longest-serving prime minister, had pulled another rabbit out of his hat.
Less than two months later, after his failure to assemble a governing coalition forced the country into an unprecedented do-over election, Israeli pundits are asking whether even magic can save him now.
With the new election still more than three months away, no one is foolish enough to write him off altogether.
But the math and the calendar are unforgiving.
Netanyahu claimed to have lined up 60 seats in his coalition during the past week. He needed 61 for a majority in Israel’s 120-seat Parliament.
There is little reason to assume that the outcome would be any better when the new election is held Sept. 17. With his ability to form a government now in doubt, it could well be worse.
Three corruption cases
Then there is the issue of the indictments.
Netanyahu is facing charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust in three corruption cases.
The attorney general has scheduled a hearing for early October where Netanyahu, who denies the accusations and rejects the prosecution as a partisan witch hunt, can contest the charges.
Indictments could come soon after.
That creates two big problems for Netanyahu.
First, even if he wins the election, he would have trouble signing up coalition partners with indictments hanging over his head.
In theory, the law does not prevent a prime minister from serving while under indictment, but that has never happened before.
It is possible that the Supreme Court could intervene. There would also be tremendous pressure for him to step down.
The second problem is calendrical.
Netanyahu’s escape plan required Parliament to grant him immunity and to pass a law allowing it to overrule a possible Supreme Court judgment reversing that immunity.
With Parliament adjourned until after the election, the chances of getting such laws passed before he is indicted are not high.
On Thursday, the day Parliament dissolved, setting in motion a new election, “the countdown to the end of the Netanyahu era began,” veteran political columnist Yossi Verter wrote in the liberal newspaper Haaretz.
Amit Segal, chief political analyst of Israel’s Channel 12 News, said that the dissolution of Parliament and the new election “created a real danger that he will not be able to escape prosecution.”
“If a government had been formed this week,” Segal said, “he would probably have managed to get the case against him dropped.”
Returning from the ‘dead’
Netanyahu’s political obituary has been written many times before: in 1996, when the polls said, incorrectly, that he had lost to Shimon Peres; in 1999, when he lost to Ehud Barak and announced his retirement from politics; in 2006, when his conservative Likud party won only 12 seats.
Each time he has returned from the dead.
He has served three consecutive terms as prime minister, four altogether, for a total of 13 years.
In July, he will surpass the record of Israel’s founding father and first premier, David Ben Gurion.
But his options have narrowed considerably.
In the April election, Netanyahu himself was the primary campaign issue.
His main challenger was Benny Gantz, a former military chief whose centrist Blue and White party ran on a platform with few substantive differences with Netanyahu beyond the fact that Gantz was not Netanyahu.
Gantz’s party, which won 35 seats, said it would consider joining a coalition with Likud but not with Netanyahu as its leader.
If the previous election was a referendum on Netanyahu, the September election is likely to be a repeat, but with a more damaged candidate and even less margin for error.
Careless and arrogant
Uzi Arad, Netanyahu’s former national security adviser and now a critic, said that as Netanyahu accrued power, he became careless and arrogant, leaving him with fewer and fewer allies.
“His demise may occur because of the toxicity of his leadership style, characterized by impulsiveness, shooting from the hip, surrounding himself with sycophants of modest abilities, using divide and rule on all levels, a style that had led many to turn against him,” Arad said.
Now even his right-wing base may be having second thoughts.
“People on the right - at the moment only in closed conversations - are beginning to think that Netanyahu may have brought them victory, but also the resounding failure that happened later, and that perhaps the time has come to find a successor,” said Yohanan Plesner, president of the Israel Democracy Institute, a nonpartisan research institute.
“King Bibi might no longer be invincible.”