Last fall, Professor Stephenson alluded to the confusion that many in the anticorruption community feel regarding “voters in many democracies [who] seem to support candidates that are known or reputed to be corrupt.” This confusion was shared by many of my (non-Israeli) colleagues over the last few weeks, upon learning that Benjamin Netanyahu won the April 2019 elections and will serve as Israel’s Prime Minister for a fourth consecutive term (and fifth term overall), despite being suspected of various corruption offenses, including bribery and breach of trust (see here, here, here, and here). (Saying that Netanyahu won the elections is slightly inaccurate in a technical sense, since in Israel voters do not vote directly for the candidate they wish to serve as Prime Minister, but rather for the party they wish to represent them in the parliament (the Knesset). Nonetheless, 26.46% of the voters supported Netanyahu’s Likud party, making it one of the two largest parties in the Knesset; many other voters supported various other right-wing parties that were sure to join Likud to form a government.) Does the fact that so many Israelis cast their ballot in favor of Netanyahu’s party, or other parties sure to back Netanyahu for Prime Minister, mean that Israeli voters simply do not care about corruption?
The short answer is no. The longer answer is that there are three main reasons why voters may have chosen to support Likud despite disapproving of corruption:
- First, many Israeli voters may not have considered the corruption allegations against Netanyahu to be that strong. For starters, he has not yet been indicted for any crime, let alone convicted. He is currently only a suspect. Towards the end of February 2019, Israel’s Attorney General announced that Netanyahu’s indictment for corruption is “pending a hearing,” but this hearing did not take place before the election, and many of his voters – almost 90% of them, according to a recent survey – do not see him as someone who has been tainted by corruption. Furthermore, none of the three corruption cases against Prime Minister Netanyahu involve “classic” corruption allegations, in the sense that none of them describe a scenario in which Netanyahu received a suitcase or an envelope full of money in exchange for a specific act on his part. In two of the cases, the benefit that Netanyahu allegedly received or was supposed to receive for his actions was positive media coverage. In the third case, the suspicion against Netanyahu concerns gifts (such as cigars, jewelry, and bottles of champagne) that Netanyahu and his family allegedly received for a period of several years from two businessmen with whom Netanyahu had personal relationships, for no single particular act in return. Rather, Netanyahu had allegedly occasionally assisted one of the businessmen with regard to his personal or business interests. These allegations, even if eventually proven, are perceived by many to be less morally severe than a case in which money went directly into the pocket of Netanyahu in exchange for a clear, concrete favor. As many as 46% of Likud voters, for example, do not believe that it is “an act of corruption for the prime minister to promote the interests of the wealthy in return for favorable media coverage.” So, for many Israeli voters, support for Netanyahu may not indicate that they do not take corruption seriously, but rather may reflect their belief that the corruption allegations against Netanyahu are not sufficiently serious.
- Second, and related to the previous point, many of Netanyahu’s voters (65% of them, as suggested by a recent survey) believe that the police and the prosecution are politically biased. Netanyahu himself stoked these suspicions, referring to investigations against him as an “attempt to overthrow the government in an undemocratic way” and as an act of “political persecution” (see here and here). Following the elections, some commentators described the massive vote for Netanyahu as a “no confidence vote” against the police and the legal system.
- Third, and perhaps most importantly, the Israeli elections offer further proof that even though many voters do care about corruption, they may care more about other things. In Israel, surveys show that security, not corruption, is at the top of Israelis’ priorities, and that many people believe it is more important for a political leader to “keep promises to voters” than to have “personal integrity.” Many voters who believe that Netanyahu is the best to lead Israel in the area of security, and who support Netanyahu’s policies and past actions regarding Israel’s economy, foreign policy, state and religion, the relationship with the Palestinians, etc., likely wished for him to continue serving as Prime Minister even if those voters are also concerned about the corruption allegations. What’s more, pre-election polls had predicted that Kahol Lavan, Likud’s main political rival, might win the elections. The “threat” that a political alliance that is perceived as more leftist would form the next government had convinced even some of the right-wing voters who regularly do not support Netanyahu to vote for Likud.
Prime Minister Netanyahu’s reelection therefore does not mean that Israelis – not even those who voted for Likud – do not care about corruption. Rather, it reflects the fact that many voters, in Israel and elsewhere, may vote for a politician accused of corruption because the allegations against that politician do not appear especially serious or credible, or because other considerations take precedence.