Israel is facing unprecedented political chaos after Benjamin Netanyahu was formally indicted on charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust.
The announcement from attorney general Avichai Mandelblit came less than 24 hours after opposition leader Benny Gantz gave up his efforts to form a government. Both he and Netanyahu have now failed to assemble a coalition in the Knesset following September’s deadlocked election.
An angry Netanyahu – who said the indictments represented “an attempted coup against a sitting prime minister” and called for a probe into the investigators – is now desperately attempting to cling to the leadership of the Likud party. Although no serving premier has ever faced criminal changes, Israeli law allows a prime minister to remain in office through a trial and until appeals processes have been exhausted.
Following a challenge from his long-standing arch-rival within Likud, former education minister Gideon Sa’ar, the prime minister agreed for the party to hold a primary election, reportedly within six weeks. It will be the first serious challenge to Netanyahu’s leadership since he became Likud’s leader for the second time in 2005.
This timing is crucial: the Knesset is now entering a 21-day period where any of its members who can win the backing of 61 MKs can request the president grant them two weeks to form a government.
Sa’ar has called for an immediate primary in which he hopes to oust Netanyahu and form a unity government with Gantz before the 11 December deadline at which point, if no MK has won the support of a majority of MKs, a new election will be triggered. Such an election, likely to be held on 3 March 2020, would be the third time Israelis have gone to the polls in less than a year.
Netanyahu, however, wishes to delay the primary until after the deadline and then attempt to lead his party into new elections. Polls currently show, however, that – if the prime minister is granted his wish – Israel may face the same stalemate after a March election. Efforts to form a unity government between Likud and the centrist Blue and White parties have foundered since September on Gantz’s refusal to sit in a government with Netanyahu while he remains under the threat of indictment, and the prime minister’s unwillingness to ditch his ultra-Orthodox allies.
While many members of Likud have rallied to Netanyahu’s side, a number of key players – including finance minister Moshe Kahlon, Knesset speaker Yuli Edelstein and security minister Gilad Erdan – have been conspicuously silent. The Likud party is famously loyal: since its formation in 1973, it has never deposed a leader.
But Sa’ar’s challenge – which is in no way guaranteed to meet with success – is forcing Likud to choose between its other defining characteristic: the party’s attachment to power. Since 1977, when Menachem Begin led it into office for the first time, Likud has been in government for three-quarters of the time.
As he called for a primary last weekend, Sa’ar pointedly noted that, having twice failed to form a government this year, Netanyahu is no longer the great election winner and political magician he once was. “I haven’t heard one person who thinks that after a third election, or a fourth, or a fifth, or a sixth, Prime Minister Netanyahu will succeed in forming a government.”
As Netanyahu’s biographer, Anshel Pfeffer, noted on Sunday: “Sa’ar is nowhere near as popular as Netanyahu among Likudniks right now. But Netanyahu can only offer them a few more months of a lame duck interim government, one that can’t take any major steps, spend money or make appointments as it limps toward another election (which he is extremely unlikely to win). Sa’ar offers them a good chance of remaining in power and avoiding another election.”
The charges against Netanyahu are well-known and have been long anticipated since Mandelblit announced his preliminary decision to indict the prime minister in February.
In the first, so-called “Case 1000”, Netanyahu is accused of accepting gifts – including champagne, cigars and jewellery – totalling around £300,000 from wealthy businessmen in return for advancing their interests.
In the second case, “Case 2000”, he is accused of bribing Arnon Mozes, the owner of the Yediot Ahronot newspaper, and offering to help restrict the circulation of its rival, Israel Hayom, in return for better coverage. Israel Hayom is owned by the US billionaire and strong Netanyahu supporter Sheldon Adelson. Netanyahu and Mozes, the indictment reads, “recognised that the one had the ability to promote the other’s interests”.
The third and most serious case, “Case 4000”, involves accusations that Netanyahu used his position to advance the interests of Bezeq, Israel’s largest telecommunications company. Police suspect that Shaul Elovitch, owner of the Walla news site and a key shareholder of Bezeq, swayed coverage of Netanyahu on the news site in exchange for regulatory benefits for Bezeq. The prime minister served as acting communications minister until May 2017. The indictment suggested that the relationship between the two men was “based on give and take”,and stated that Elovitch had gained benefits of $500m between 2012-17 thanks to Netanyahu’s actions, while Walla had “published [Netanyahu’s] political messages”.
Mandelblit – who said last Thursday that he acted with “a heavy heart but wholeheartedly” – indicted Netanyahu with fraud and breach of trust in all three cases, with a charge of bribery added in “Case 4000”.
The attorney general may soon be back in political deep water as he and the courts are expected to be asked to rule on Netanyahu’s eligibility to stand as a candidate – and potentially form a government – if he leads Likud into new elections in March. Mandelblit has already stated that Netanyahu can retain his post as caretaker prime minister.
To fend off his legal and political challenges, Netanyahu is seeking to appeal to the public in general and his right-wing base in particular. Although he adopted a rather more emollient tone on Friday – when he stated that there was “no question” that he would abide by the judgment of the courts – than his angry speech on Thursday, a major demonstration is planned in Tel Aviv this evening in his support under the banner of “Stop the Coup!”.
Gantz has attacked Netanyahu’s desire to “investigate the investigators”, offering his support to Mandelblit and stating: “There is no coup in Israel, but rather those that have barricaded themselves in power.” On Saturday, he also drew comparisons with the inciteful language deployed by Netanyahu against former prime minister, Yitzhak Rabin, shortly before his 1995 assassination. “The man who led a harsh and painful incitement campaign against prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, a campaign that ended in a terrible national disaster, should well know the dangerous price of words, which could heaven forbid turn into deadly bullets.”
Sa’ar joined Gantz’s condemnation, saying: “This is not an attempted coup … It is not responsible to make this claim.” While Netanyahu’s former justice minister and leader of the New Right party (which recently merged with Likud), Ayelet Shaked, offered the prime minister support, she also strongly defended Mandelblit, labelling him “an honest man who takes his decisions independently, in accordance with the evidence and his professional assessments.” Indeed, as David Horovitz of the Times of Israel suggested: “If it is any comfort, the fact that Mandelblit is not only a Netanyahu-appointee, but an immensely respected figure of integrity and an Orthodox Jew, has acted as something of a brake on the roiling domestic tensions. Were a perceived secular Tel Aviv filling the top role, the prime minister’s effort to discredit the entire establishment would likely be further advanced.”
Moreover, newspaper reports also suggest private unease within Likud’s ranks at attempts by Netanyahu aides to push ministers into taking a stand against the prosecution and attend the Tuesday rally. “I can criticise the prosecution but it’s a very big leap from that to accusing Mandelblit of framing [Netanyahu] or claiming that there’s a coup going on,” suggested one senior party official.
In the meantime, Netanyahu appears determined to place his own interests above those of both his party and, more importantly, Israeli democracy. As Haaretz columnist Chemi Shalev argued: “Instead of a dignified exit or at least a time-out in which he could try to prove his self-proclaimed innocence, Netanyahu will have to be dragged kicking and screaming from his sanctuary in the Prime Minister’s Residence in Jerusalem. His last stand is turning into a messy, potentially destructive and eminently ignoble affair.”