Corruption suspicions involving Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu appear to be coming to a head. On December 2, Israeli police recommended indicting him in the third case out of four major investigations, raising the chances that inscrutable Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit will in fact indict him. Netanyahu was already facing severe criticism over an indirect deal with Hamas in November to stop violence in the south, causing his coalition to teeter; these developments were followed by a fresh wave of attacks in the West Bank in mid-December. The same week, reports emerged of impending consumer price hikes for basic commodities such as water, electricity, and food, leaving Netanyahu vulnerable to economic discontent. Netanyahu is undoubtedly a political survivor, having won four separate elections and governed consecutively for the last decade. However, it seems unlikely that he can escape all of these battles unscathed, and it is even possible he will lose elections, which are scheduled for late 2019 but might be held earlier.
Yet even if he should go down in flames, Netanyahu will leave behind a clear legacy for Israel’s politics and society, and for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Politically, Netanyahu has come to represent stability in a country notorious for chaotic governance, with fractious coalitions that rarely last a full term. He is one of the longest serving prime ministers of Israel, second only to David Ben Gurion for a few more months. He is the only leader in Israel’s history to preside over two coalitions that have lasted for roughly a full four-year term. This is not an idle fact; Israelis might well conclude that Netanyahu’s type of leadership is best for the country.
Netanyahu governs by consolidating power. He has served for three consecutive terms, four in total—well past usual term limits. At his busiest, Netanyahu has held six ministerial portfolios simultaneously, including the premiership. He has dropped some at times, but at present heads multiple portfolios: the four major ministries of defense, foreign affairs, health, and Aliyah and integration (formerly the ministry of immigration).
Under his leadership, the Knesset, Israel’s legislature, has passed laws that undermine free expression (such as the anti-boycott and Nakba laws), civil society (targeting left-wing NGOs), and minority protections (such as the admissions committee law for small communities). The nation-state law–which, as a basic law, has constitutional status—passed in July defines Israel as an exclusive ethno-national state, demotes minority rights, and declines to mention equality. His Minister of Justice Ayelet Shaked hails from a far-right nationalist party, Habayit Hayehudi (The Jewish Home), and her greatest political mission is to weaken the independence of Israel’s judiciary and strengthen the influence of both the executive and the Knesset over the courts.
These values are making their mark. Surveys show that Shaked is among the most popular ministers in the country, although she is highly polarizing. For instance, one poll in July by Panels Politics found that if she were to defect parties and run as the leader of the Likud, the party would win just as many seats as it does under Netanyahu. Every poll over the last year named Netanyahu as the person most suited to be prime minister, usually by at least double the support for the next runner-up. His party wins in nearly all public polls since the last election. Israelis are content: the percentage of respondents who say things are going well has risen steadily since 2007, according to the 2018 Israeli Democracy Index released in December. (Netanyahu has governed since 2009.)
Netanyahu’s policies put him closer to illiberal, semi-authoritarian and populist leaders elsewhere, and the latter are becoming his friends. He has cultivated strategic partnerships with President Vladimir Putin of Russia and Prime Minister Viktor Orbán of Hungary, and has been notably forgiving of Poland’s government despite its injury to Holocaust memory. Perhaps not coincidentally, Poland’s government, like Israel, has also sought to undermine its justice system. Netanyahu has visited the authoritarian-led Azerbaijan, and hosted President Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines and Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini of Italy. Most view these relationships as savvy foreign policy to ensure that Israel is not dependent only on the United States and Western Europe—especially after President Barack Obama was viewed as critical of Israeli policy, and the EU irritates Israel with human rights rhetoric. But the relationships go beyond foreign policy; legitimizing those figures’ forms of leadership also legitimizes Netanyahu’s domestic form of governance.
Beyond governance, Netanyahu has also shifted social norms in Israel. If he is indicted in the corruption cases, he is not expected (nor required) to resign—legitimizing the idea that a man charged with corruption can also be a sitting prime minister. It is a far cry from the time when Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin resigned in his first term due to a minor financial impropriety, and Netanyahu’s approach contrasts more recently with that of Ehud Olmert, who resigned—arguably out of need more than desire—when his corruption investigations became too distracting. If Netanyahu is indicted and even convicted, his party might still well win the next elections.
Netanyahu’s response to the investigations has either amplified or conjured a deep-state type of narrative, tapping into a primordial feeling that the right wing is long-suffering, suppressed, disrespected, and marginalized by the liberal elites. Throughout the investigations, Netanyahu, the son of an elite Jerusalem family from Israel’s most privileged demographic, has claimed the mantle of a victim. He energizes some of the historic support for Likud among traditional Mizrahi voters, although his Ashkenazi origin (like Menachem Begin himself) is just one indicator that the Jewish “ethnic” (Ashkenazi-Mizrahi) electoral divide is overstated in Israeli politics.
In this narrative, it does not matter that the right wing has held power for the better part of the last forty years in Israel. Since 1977, there have been only three governments that count as left-wing in Israeli terms): the Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres governments from 1992 to 1996, and Ehud Barak’s government from 1999 to 2001. Still, Netanyahu has seeded the notion that justice system as a whole persecutes the right wing, ergo the entire branch of government is either leftist or manipulated. The judiciary is becoming a whipping boy for all Israel’s ills; Naftali Bennett, Netanyahu’s most serious right-wing rival, exhorted that the army cannot sufficiently defend citizens when its hands are bound by “legalized” thinking, and presumably believes that military action should be freed of all legal constraints.
Eroding confidence in the justice system, Netanyahu is able to portray the corruption issue as trumped-up investigations by a cabal of conspirators, persecuting him because he represents the true voice of the people. Dark forces of the left are in a frenzy to bring him down, backed by nefarious foreigners and their money. The conclusion is that only the voters know what is right, and checks and balances such as judicial independence or civil society—and needless to say, the critical media—are wrong. The right is now fond of arguing, “The left forgot what democracy is,” apparently a code for “True democracy is unconstrained majority rule.”
These less democratic political and social norms complement Netanyahu’s legacy on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. His policies are not splashy; even critical observers grudgingly acknowledge that he prefers to avoid full-scale wars. He insists that few new settlements have been established in the West Bank under his rule, when in fact, he has quietly laid the groundwork for annexation. In 2017, Israel passed a law effectively legalizing settlements on private land in the West Bank. In December of that year, the Likud Central Committee voted for its party leaders to support annexing the West Bank, and the Minister of Justice Shaked, her party and its leader Bennett, openly advocate extending civil law there, another form of annexation. Finally, the nation-state law of 2017 ensures that Israel will be a Jewish state even if it ends up permanently governing an eventual non-Jewish majority.
The unrelenting difficulties of life for Palestinians in Area C—the roughly 60 percent of the West Bank that is under full control of the Israeli army—nudges them to remove themselves to the isolated bubbles of areas A and B, the areas of nominal Palestinian autonomy scattered around the West Bank. Netanyahu’s promise of “no new settlements” means little when considering the uptick in construction inside existing settlements, their geographic spread, and their population growth.
Netanyahu is not solely responsible, but the two-state solution died on Netanyahu’s watch. He has also laid the foundation for what comes next: creeping, quiet and piecemeal annexation with equally piecemeal rights for Palestinians who happen to be in the way. Long after he is gone, Israel will continue to bear his image.
Dahlia Scheindlin is a public opinion expert and political analyst who advises electoral and social campaigns in Israel and internationally. Follow her on Twitter @dahliasc.