Netanyahu Faces Corruption Charges as Israeli Elections Approach

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meets with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in 2018. (Wikimedia Commons)

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meets with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in 2018. (Wikimedia Commons)

With legislative elections less than a month away, significant political transformation is underway in Israel, as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu allies with controversial candidates from the far-right in an attempt to survive unfolding criminal charges of corruption. Most recently, Israel’s Central Elections Committee approved several far-right candidates to participate in the elections scheduled for April 9, Reuters reports. One candidate, Michael Ben-Ari, is a member of the Jewish Power Party and the other, Itamar Ben-Gvir, of the Jewish Home party.

According to the New York Times, Ari and Gvir are the co-founders of Lehava, an organization opposed to Jewish-Arab relations and responsible for the 2014 attack in which a Jewish Arab school was torched and vandalized with racist messages. Gvir is an attorney known for defending radical Israeli settlers implicated in West Bank violence. Two leftist political parties, Meretz and Labor, have since stated their intention to appeal the election committee’s decision to the Supreme Court on account of the candidates being racist.

Meanwhile, the Central Elections Committee disqualified the Arab party Raam-Balad, Reuters reports. Raam-Balad consists of Islamic and Arab nationalists and opposes Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territory. Raam-Balad was charged with supporting the Islamic militant group Hezbollah in the 2006 Lebanon War between Hezbollah and Israel. Israel’s right-wing Likud Party accused Raam-Balad of seeking to eliminate Israel’s identity as a Jewish state and supporting Palestinian and Lebanese militants.

Raam-Balad’s leader Mansour Abbas confidently expressed his plan to appeal the disqualification to the Supreme Court. According to theJerusalem Post, the Supreme Court is likely to approve Abbas’s appeal prior to the April elections.

Party disqualifications by the Central Elections Committee must be confirmed by the Supreme Court on the basis of one of the following: rejecting Israel’s existence as a Jewish democratic state, supporting armed struggles against Israel, or racism. Only once before has the Supreme Court supported a party disqualification.

The approval of Jewish Power and Jewish Home candidates as well as the barring of Arab opposition are victories for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Looking to create a strong religious nationalist bloc for the upcoming elections, Netanyahu recently forged a political alliance with Jewish Power and Jewish Home.

However, the alliance has come under harsh criticism for promoting racism. Jewish Power is known to support violence against Palestinians and the banning of intermarriage and sex between Arabs and Jews. It identifies itself as the successor of the Kahanist movement, which sought to transform the state into a Jewish theocracy. The movement was outlawed in Israel in 1985 and named a terrorist organization by the U.S.

New political alliances are also emerging among opposition parties seeking to prevent the rise of nationalist right-wing power in the upcoming elections. The nation’s two leading centrist candidates, Benny Gantz and Yair Lapid, forged a pact called the Blue and White Party and vowed to share the Prime Ministership if elected.

According to the New York Times, the two have advocated for social policies to address overburdened infrastructure and hospitals as well as cautious peacemaking with Palestinians.
In response to the consolidation of centrist opposition, Netanyahu claimed that the Blue and White Party would allow for the creation of a Palestinian state, threatening the existence of Israel.

The recent developments concerning political parties come amidst an unfolding criminal case implicating Prime Minister Netanyahu. In February, Israel’s attorney-general announced plans to indict Netanyahu on three cases of corruption. Marking the end of a two-year investigation, the corruption charges consist of one count bribery and three counts of breach of trust.

NBC reports that the most prominent allegation involves the Prime Minister’s relationship with Bezeq, Israel’s telecom giant. Bezeq supposedly received hundreds of millions of dollars worth of regulatory changes in exchange for positive press coverage of Netanyahu on its popular news site, Walla. Further charges include the Prime Minister accepting hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of gifts in champagne and cigars from billionaire friends.

According to NBC News, the prime minister denounced the charges as an “outrageous” and an “unprecedented witch hunt” led by left-wing opponents seeking to defeat him on April 9. Netanyahu’s attorneys successfully requested that the hearings for the charges be postponed until July, after the elections.

Nevertheless, the watchdog group Movement for Quality Government evaluated that the charges, especially that of bribery, appear to be solid. Pressure on Netanyahu to step down is expected to rise once hearings begin in July. If he refuses to resign, it would be the nation’s first time with a sitting Prime Minister so close to criminal charges.