Back to the Wall, Netanyahu Fights for His Political Life

Even after a devastating indictment, it may be too soon to count out the Israeli prime minister known as “the magician.”

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gestures during a meeting of the right-wing bloc at the Knesset in Jerusalem on Nov. 20. GALI TIBBON/AFP via Getty Images

TEL AVIV, Israel—With Benjamin Netanyahu waging a scorched-earth battle for his political and legal life after being indicted Thursday on corruption charges, and the parliament stalemated after two straight inconclusive elections, Israel’s political system has run amok in a way never before imagined.

Yet even now, with Israel facing the possibility of a third vote in less than a year, the prime minister often dubbed “the magician” hopes to pull off his biggest feat yet and, against all odds, win a new election early in 2020 by running against the same government over which he presides. 

The charges of bribery, fraud, and breach of trust served by Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit make Netanyahu the first sitting Israeli prime minister ever to face a criminal indictment. After Netanyahu twice failed to form a government, those indictments would seem to leave him mortally wounded on the political battlefield, but no one is counting him out after watching him recover from near-defeat so many times before. In two previous elections campaigns, Netanyahu has trumped pollsters who predicted defeat, and over the last 10 years of interrupted rule as premier, he has deftly been able to fend off rivals from left, right and center.     

In a televised address responding to the indictment, the prime minister alleged that he was the target of a “governmental coup” and trumped-up charges from a biased investigation. “It’s aimed at overthrowing the rule of the right-wing. It’s aimed at overthrowing me,” he said. “Investigate the investigators.”  

In addition to his bully pulpit, the prime minister has two factors in his favor: Israeli law only requires the resignation of a prime minister in the case of a final conviction, and, crucially, most of the leading figures in his Likud party and some of his religious party allies have so far remained loyal, giving him a foundation to keep the support of the rest of his coalition allies. Since the indictment, a parade of Likud politicians and other rightwing leaders have declared that Netanyahu deserves the presumption of innocence, rather than being punished by a forced resignation. 

Even so, some cracks have emerged in the Likud party, which will pose a threat to Netanyahu over the next three weeks. Gideon Saar, a former education minister, said in October he wants to run against Netanyahu in a party primary in case of a new election. If Saar were to gather up enough Likud lawmakers in over the next three weeks, it could leave Netanyahu out in the cold and avoid a new vote—which a September poll found that 60 percent of Israelis oppose. 

“If that happens, we’ll have a government very quickly,” said Jonathan Rynhold, a political science professor at Israel’s Bar-Ilan University. “If the Likud parliamentarians feel that the Likud as a party will be punished at the ballot box for causing a third election” then the possibility of abandoning the prime minister could become more tempting. 

Netanyahu will “fight like a wounded lion,” wrote Yossi Verter, a political commentator, in the liberal Haaretz newspaper. “Nineteen days are now left for [Knesset members] to find a way out before we’re dragged into a third election campaign. The main dilemma has been placed before the 31 Likud [lawmakers] not named Netanyahu.” And it’s up to them to decide if they will remain loyal to the prime minister as he pushes Israel to the brink.

Before Netanyahu can begin his new election campaign, he must run out the clock on the stalemated Knesset that was elected Sept. 17. In October, the prime minister failed to cobble together a government. And just one day before Mandelblit’s indictment, Netanyahu’s political rival Benny Gantz, the former army chief who heads the centrist Blue and White party, conceded that he too had failed in his turn at forming a coalition government. 

During those two rounds of talks, Netanyahu and Gantz danced around discussions of a power-sharing unity government, but neither has agreed who would be prime minister first. Gantz has vowed not to join a government with a prime minister under indictment.

“We are entering unknown territory,” said Yedidia Stern, a law professor and a senior fellow at the Israel Democracy Institute. “The prime minister is a lame duck, because he’s operating under the heavy cloud of going to court and jail. This makes him vulnerable in the eyes of the public, along with the major doubt about whether he can function in office.”

The Knesset now finds itself in a post-election overtime period, which, once it expires, triggers a new, third round of voting. Israeli parliamentarians have a little bit less than three weeks to find a 61-member majority to get behind one lawmaker to form a coalition. The two-plus months of post-election stalemate and the consecutive votes are unprecedented in Israel’s 71-year history. 

A third election would likely once again revolve around a referendum on Netanyahu’s fitness for an office, this time with a formal indictment over his head. In the bribery case, the prime minister is alleged to have eased telecommunications regulations for a business tycoon in return for positive coverage on the tycoon’s news website. In two other cases, the prime minister is accused of fraud and breach of trust for accepting gifts worth hundreds of thousands of dollars, and proposing to pass a law limiting the circulation of a newspaper in return for positive coverage in a rival paper. 

He’ll say that the prosecution is trying to take me down. I’m doing good work for the country, I’ve devoted my life for the country, let me finish the work,” said Aviv Bushinsky, a former spokesman for the prime minister. “People have got used to the situation in which Netanyahu is an alleged criminal for three years.” 

Beyond the parliamentary and party dynamics, Israeli legal and judicial authorities might weigh in to disqualify Netanyahu. What’s more, Israeli President Reuven Rivlin might cite the indictments as a reason to refuse to grant Netanyahu a chance to form a new government, either before or after a new election. 

Gantz’s Blue and White party on Friday demanded that the Israeli attorney general call for Netanyahu to resign immediately. The party’s call highlighted the near certainty that Netanyahu will face appeals to the Supreme Court arguing that the indictment should disqualify him from receiving a fresh mandate to serve as prime minister. 

Even though Israeli law doesn’t require a prime minister to resign in the face of criminal charges, Netanyahu’s status is different and perhaps somewhat more tenuous, because he has been serving as caretaker prime minister in a temporary government ever since he dissolved the parliament 11 months ago and called the round of elections in April. Netanyahu, Israel’s longest-serving prime minister, was last confirmed as prime minister after Israel’s election in 2015.

Another avenue of appeal to the Israeli high court involves a judicial precedent from the 1990s that requires ministers under indictment to resign. Netanyahu’s predicament seems to ensure the high court will be asked to rule again—setting up a potentially unprecedented decision for a judicial panel already beleaguered by attacks from the Israeli right.  

A case deciding the identity of the prime minister like the U.S. high court ruling after the 2000 election would likely provoke a constitutional crisis: Netanyahu’s allies would probably rejoin their assault on Israel’s legal system and the high court as usurping the will of the people.

“Right now we have a dangerous situation … my prime minister’s strategy to escape the law is by destroying the authority of the law. What can be worse,” Stern said. “The legitimacy of the authorities responsible for the rule of law is being questioned by too many people, and the one leading this terrible movement is a leader of the state. It’s like an autoimmune disease, the body attacks itself.”

Joshua Mitnick is a journalist based in Tel Aviv. Twitter: @joshmitnick

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