This should have been the end of Benjamin Netanyahu’s career. His coalition is down to the minimum number of seats in the Knesset necessary to hold on to power, his ministers at war with one another and with him, and remarkably, the police have recommended indicting him on serious corruption charges three separate times, the most recent on Dec. 2.
Yet despite all this, polling concurs that Mr. Netanyahu is on course to win a fifth election next year and surpass David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s founding father, as the country’s longest-serving leader. Meanwhile, he has more power than ever. When Avigdor Lieberman resigned on Nov. 14 to protest a cease-fire agreement with Hamas in Gaza, Mr. Netanyahu took on the role of defense minister, adding it to his portfolio of prime minister and foreign minister. (He also holds a couple of other less-interesting ministries.) He appears to have no intention of reallocating these policy roles in the near future.
The remaining members of the cabinet grumble off the record that “Bibi is stealing the show” and hint darkly that the timing of Israel’s latest operation against Hezbollah tunnels — and especially the prime-time news briefings by the new defense minister — may have some connection to Mr. Netanyahu’s desire to deflect attention from the latest police findings. But they all acknowledge that after the next election, they will still be serving under him.
The legal process won’t do Mr. Netanyahu in. While the police recommendations seem — and are — damning, they are legally meaningless. The attorney general has to issue the indictment, a process that could take at least another year. Even then, there is no clear obligation for Mr. Netanyahu to resign, even while on trial. He most likely wouldn’t. But the reason for that is politics, not the law.
The seeming inevitability of Mr. Netanyahu’s continuing reign should be surprising. Replacing a prime minister in Israel isn’t difficult. All it would take is a majority of Knesset members to vote for another of their colleagues and Mr. Netanyahu would have to leave office. And he isn’t immune from prosecution. In the past decade, the Israeli courts have sent both a prime minister (Ehud Olmert for bribery) and a president (Moshe Katzav for rape) to prison. In 2008, Mr. Olmert was forced from office at a relatively early stage during his own criminal investigation, when members of his coalition refused to serve under a prime minister accused of taking bribes.
What makes Mr. Netanyahu so different?
In nearly a decade back in power, he has delivered what had never seemed possible: a period of sustained economic growth, including, for the first time, a AA- international credit rating; flourishing ties with countries around the world (and, behind the scenes, new alliances with Arab governments); and, by Israeli standards, security. A third Intifada hasn’t broken out on his watch. Israel found itself fighting on the ground in Gaza only once, for a 50-day period in the summer of 2014. And the shadow war with Iran in Syria has not boiled over.
But the most incredible achievement for many Israelis is that Mr. Netanyahu has been able to do all of this without making any concessions to the Palestinians. For the Israeli right, this makes him irreplaceable. He stood up to international pressure during the Obama administration, long enough for the Palestinian issue to sink to the bottom of the global agenda. With President Trump in the White House and European and Arab leaders preoccupied by their own troubles, the pressure has now all but disappeared. There was a time not long ago, beginning in 1992 with the rise of Yitzhak Rabin, when the Israeli left seemed to be winning the argument: A two-state solution was necessary. No longer.
No matter how deep their frustration with Mr. Netanyahu, no figures on the right want to openly challenge the most successful nationalist leader in Israel’s history. None are prepared to risk being accused of opening the way for the return of the defeatist left with its dangerous ideas of relinquishing territory. The aspiring prime ministers in Likud and its satellite right-wing parties all talk of making a run “only after Netanyahu.”
This political and ideological ascendancy confers on Mr. Netanyahu at least temporary immunity — political, if not necessarily legal. Mr. Olmert was forced to resign when he was charged with bribery only because he was already weakened and discredited as a prime minister. But the course of justice was slow. It took seven and a half years from his resignation to him actually going to jail. A similar fate may well be in store for Mr. Netanyahu, but only years from now. As long as he is satisfying his political base and the opposition fails to come up with a better narrative with which to replace his, he can continue fighting his legal battles from office.
Anshel Pfeffer is the author of Bibi: The Turbulent Life and Times of Benjamin Netanyahu.