Netanyahu faces the political crisis of his life

Netanyahu speaks out amid corruption probes
Netanyahu speaks out amid corruption probes

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Story highlights

  • Aaron David Miller: Benjamin Netanyahu is facing a slew of investigations
  • Don't bet against the Prime Minister -- he's a true survivor in Israeli politics

Aaron David Miller is a vice president and distinguished scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and was a Middle East negotiator in Democratic and Republican administrations. The views expressed in this commentary are his own.

(CNN)In Israeli politics, the old saying goes, you can be dead or dead and buried. There are rarely second acts. But then there is Benjamin Netanyahu -- a man who has survived defeat, scandal and now, in his fourth term, stands to become the longest-serving Israeli Prime Minister in Israel's short history. In doing so he would surpass the towering figure of David Ben-Gurion.

That is if he survives in the post into 2018.
    And the chances are that he will. But in a rather remarkable career of ups and downs, Netanyahu is facing the biggest crisis of his political life. A close aide, Ari Harow, has cut a deal with the Israeli attorney general to turn state's witness and threatens to shed light on a slew of open investigations that may well bring charges of bribery and graft. Netanyahu denies the allegations.
    Plenty of analysts and pundits have lost money betting against Netanyahu and he is no speed bump in Israeli politics -- he is a survivor.
    Much could change before year's end, but here are some observations about the swirling storm that might soon engulf Israeli politics.

    It's going to take a while.

    Any of those Netanyahu critics and haters expecting the prime minister to be gone yesterday ought to lie down and wait quietly until the feeling passes. It took two years for the indictment of former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, just released from a shortened prison sentence. Indeed, Olmert was forced from power in 2008 under the pressure of police investigations, but remained as head of a caretaker government until early elections in 2009.
    Ya'alon: I think Netanyahu will be indicted
    Ya'alon: I think Netanyahu will be indicted

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    Ya'alon: I think Netanyahu will be indicted 06:23
    In Netanyahu's case, you would first need a police recommendation to indict, a decision that would likely not arrive until this fall after the Knesset is in session and the Jewish holidays have concluded. And then, because the state witness's testimony would have to be fully investigated, the matter could easily stretch into 2018. Israel's attorney general and state prosecutor would then have to weigh the issue of an indictment, with a formal hearing on the matter. And, as in most prosecutions, the decision to indict is going to be shaped by the evidence and the whether it's good enough to produce a conviction.

    If indicted, would Netanyahu resign?

    By law the answer is no. But an indictment and a public bill of particulars with serious changes -- e.g. bribery -- would force the issue into the court of public and political opinion. Various parties in the coalition might have no choice but to bolt, even though new elections might not be in their interest.
    Netanyahu has crossed many of his former partners, some of whom, like rival Naftali Bennett, have political aspirations, so there's a good chance that the government would fall. It's always possible that the coalition might rally around him, but it's hard to imagine a situation where Netanyahu could remain prime minister if he goes on trial for corruption. Indeed there's no precedent for a sitting prime minister being charged.

    What about the peace process?

    The end of Netanyahu does not mean the beginning of a serious peace process. Benjamin Netanyahu likely never saw himself as the Israeli prime minister who was going to be the father of Palestinian statehood, based on a political division of Jerusalem, dismantling of settlements, and borders of a Palestinian state kept close to June 1967 lines.
    He has proven himself highly risk-averse on matters of war and peacemaking. And his self-image and ideology make it difficult to imagine that he'd ever agree to anything close to the current Palestinian narrative. Still he's not the most right-wing leader in his coalition; and is indeed flanked by others, particularly Naftali Bennet, much tougher than he.
    Indeed it's hard to see anyone in the Likud or right-wing universe that has the willingness and ability to lead boldly on the peace process. The new head of the Labor Party, Avi Gabbay, is a compelling and attractive figure who threatens to steal away votes from Likud because of his modest background.
    But running on the peace process in the current climate -- framed by violence, a dysfunctional Palestinian national movement, and a weak Mahmoud Abbas --hardly seems like a winning hand And remember: the issue in Israeli politics is who can put a viable coalition together. As the old saw goes, a leader without followers is just a guy out for a walk.
    To identify the peace process as a key issue in an election, should Netanyahu meet his political demise, you'd need some real drama; a clear choice before the Israeli public of a popular candidate Israelis trust on security and a Palestinian or Arab partners offer of real peace and security. And that's a stretch.
    In fact, Palestinians now worry that under pressure of investigations, Netanyahu may want to solidify his ties to the right and take actions on the ground that might foreclose once and for all the possibility of a two-state solution.

    Would anything change if Netanyahu went?

    Netanyahu has dominated Israeli politics for most of the past decade. It's illogical to assume that his departure would not create a new and dynamic political reality. But what kind of reality is another matter. With the deaths of Peres and Sharon -- the last of Israel's founding generation -- Israel faces its own kind of leadership transition and challenges. And a younger generation of Prime Ministers -- Olmert (recently out of prison); Ehud Barak (deeply mistrusted); and Netanyahu (maybe soon-to-be indicted) haven't really risen to replace them.
    Former speaker of the Knesset, Avraham Burg, used to compare Shimon Peres to an evergreen tree -- stately and impressive, but underneath nothing grows. Netanyahu has clearly and willfully groomed no successors, and has in fact alienated most of his former Likud colleagues. Still a recent poll even predicted that Likud might fare better in the next election without Netanyahu.
    Who on the right would replace him, however -- and who has the political smarts, the stamina, and the security credentials to motivate the Likud base and broaden it to take votes away from the center right? Several members of Likud would like the job. but who among them would be electable is very much an open question. As for the Labor Party and Mr. Gabbay, a self-made millionaire who seems able to relate to working-class Israelis, and who the Guardian described as the Israeli (Emmanuel) Macron -- who really knows?
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    Labor hasn't won an election in 18 years and right now is polling third after Likud and the center-right party Yesh Atid, headed by another possible prime ministerial candidate, Yair Lapid.
    It's even possible that there is some set of circumstances in which Mr. Netanyahu somehow survives. If he doesn't, perhaps the change and transition will produce new leaders and real choices -- or a new boss locked into more or less the same patterns of behavior and confronted with the same options as the old one. Either way, buckle your seat belts and get ready for a turbulent period in Israeli politics.