How Possible Corruption Charges Could Threaten Benjamin Netanyahu's Tenure

Jun 14, 2019
Originally published on June 14, 2019 6:40 pm
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MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

To Israel next where Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has long been a political powerhouse. He has helped move Israel to the right. He has touted his close relations with President Trump. As NPR's Daniel Estrin reports from Tel Aviv, people in Netanyahu's own party are now asking whether his political career is nearing an end.

(CHEERING)

DANIEL ESTRIN, BYLINE: The night Netanyahu won reelection in April, his supporters cheered, he's a magician. But his magic ran out last month. One of his right-wing rivals refused to join his coalition, and he was left short of a parliamentary majority. Instead of conceding defeat, Netanyahu opted for new elections in September, which leaves supporters feeling apprehensive.

AMIR WEITMANN: Yeah, people are not happy. I'm not happy. Nobody's happy.

ESTRIN: Amir Weitmann is with a group of activists at Netanyahu's Likud Party headquarters. He says the same thing could happen again - Netanyahu winning but failing to form a government. In that case, I asked him, would the party want to replace Netanyahu.

WEITMANN: If it happens again, maybe we will have no choice. But at this stage, nobody is seriously thinking about replacing Netanyahu.

ESTRIN: Party members are not calling to replace Netanyahu for now because he's expected to win elections. They stood behind Bibi Netanyahu for years. But for the first time, they're beginning to question if he's becoming a liability. Kobi Matza is a party official.

KOBI MATZA: Hearing that they put out posts in Facebook, for example, in the media that they're not happy with what Bibi is doing.

ESTRIN: Israel's attorney general says he's preparing corruption charges against the prime minister. Some of Netanyahu's allies are upset with how he's responded. Netanyahu has lashed out at the justice system and sought immunity from prosecution. Matza says today some party activists want to talk about the day after Bibi Netanyahu.

MATZA: Bibi, he's a - he's fantastic. He's a great leader. He's not going to be forever. If it's going to be after this term or the next term, Benjamin Netanyahu - he's going to retire. He's going to lose, or maybe he's going to retire from his own will. You need to start building the next leadership.

ESTRIN: Netanyahu's former chief of staff Aviv Bushinsky says he's in contact with top Likud politicians and that privately they want to see Netanyahu go in part because they want his job after a decade. If Netanyahu faces serious charges, it could prompt these politicians to come out in the open and break ranks with Netanyahu.

AVIV BUSHINSKY: I think that the benchmark will be whether they're going to charge him/indict him for bribery. If it would be bribery, then it's the end of the story for Netanyahu. This will be the chance for the people in his party to say, OK, enough is enough.

ESTRIN: Outside Likud Party headquarters, I meet Mendi Safadi, a low-ranking politician in the party, and I ask him about Netanyahu's corruption case.

Do you think the majority of the Likud would want to see him move aside if there is an indictment?

MENDI SAFADI: Yeah. If we go to this option, I think the majority of the Likud would. They want to find other leader.

ESTRIN: A possible indictment could come by the end of the year. Netanyahu vows to prove his innocence in court and remain in office. His main selling point is his close relations with President Trump. At Netanyahu's urging, Trump pulled out of the Iran nuclear deal and endorsed Israel's claim to Jerusalem as its capital. Netanyahu promises to continue to, quote, "bring many accomplishments." The question, though, is how long Netanyahu's party will stay by his side. Daniel Estrin, NPR News, Tel Aviv. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.