Israel implodes amid Netanyahu legal fight

By Loveday Morris | The Washington Post |

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks at the Economic Club of Washington in Washington on March 7, 2018.

TEL AVIV — The corruption scandal bedeviling Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu should be a gift to his election opponents on the center left, but instead they are plagued by infighting and, in the case of Israel’s Labor Party, near mutiny.

It is a familiar story in democracies around the world: the collapse of left-of-center alternatives amid the rise of right-wing populism and increasing political polarization.

But in Israel, the left has a particularly thorny problem. It is unable to dissociate itself from the failure of the peace process that began under Labor with the signing the Oslo accords 25 years ago.

Labor has been shedding voters ever since. And now, Israel’s founding party – and the political home of national behemoths such as prime ministers David Ben Gurion and Golda Meir – is reaching a crisis point less than three months before elections with polls projecting it will win a paltry eight or nine of the 120 seats in parliament, down from the 19 it currently holds.

The left-of-center voters simply are not there. As few as 20 percent of Israelis now identify themselves as left or center-left, according to some surveys. Netanyahu is quick to deride critics as “leftists,” and political analysts say his years of messaging have paid off, with the word now often implying someone puts the interests of Palestinians before those of Israelis.

Netanyahu, who has been prime minister for the past decade, has gone so far as to brand the legal cases being brought against him as part of a conspiracy cooked up by left-wing Israelis because they cannot beat him at the ballot box. Police have recommended that he be indicted in three corruption cases, and Israel’s Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit is weighing whether to announce a possible indictment before Israel goes to the polls.

Political analysts attribute Labor’s latest troubles in part to its leadership. In an attempt to stanch the loss of supporters and appeal to the center, Labor in 2017 named as its leader Avi Gabbay, a millionaire who made his money at the helm of Israel’s largest telecom provider.

Just a year earlier, Gabbay had been a minister in Netanyahu’s cabinet for a small centrist party he had helped found. Gabbay’s appointment as Labor’s leader has turned off many in that party, who are now calling for his removal.

The fractures in the opposition ranks erupted into public view recently when Gabbay – live on television – abruptly ditched his coalition partner Tzipi Livni, a former foreign minister whose party was allied with Labor. Without an alliance, her party may struggle to pass the threshold to win any seats.

At the Labor Party’s recent campaign launch in Tel Aviv, the atmosphere was one of insurrection. “He’s a CEO of a big firm who created a conservative party and then became the head of Labor,” complained party activist Tomer Pines as he smoked outside the hall. “It’s absurd.”

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