Analysis: Bibi teeters on the brink

Benjamin Netanyahu’s decade-long spell in power may be coming to an end. A pre-indictment hearing into charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust levelled against the Israeli prime minister commenced in Jerusalem today, as his attempts to form a government following inconclusive elections last month appeared close to collapse.

The two issues are intimately connected – “twin swords of Damocles” hanging over the Netanyahu, according to the Times of Israel.

Last week, Israel’s president, Reuven Rivlin, formally charged Netanyahu with assembling a new coalition after he won the backing of 55 members of the Knesset to become prime minister. However, Netanyahu is six votes short of the majority he needs in the 120-member Israeli parliament. Opposition leader Benny Gantz, whose Blue and White party topped the poll in the elections, won the support of 54 MKs from centre-left and Arab parties.

Rivlin had initially attempted to persuade Gantz and Netanyahu to form a unity government, with the premiership rotating between the two men. But those initial talks foundered and – as the leader of the biggest bloc, albeit by one vote – Netanyahu officially received the mandate to form a new government. He has 28 days to do so, with the possibility of a two-week extension.

However, less than a week into those 28 days, Netanyahu appears on the verge of returning the mandate to Rivlin and admitting that he cannot form a government. If he does so, Gantz is likely to be passed the chance to assemble a coalition.

Coalition negotiations between his Likud party and Blue and White broke down in acrimony over the weekend.

Further talks scheduled for today were cancelled last night by Gantz, whose party said that Likud was “not acting in good faith”, but was only seeking to avoid the blame if Israel is forced into new elections – the third poll since the country first voted in April. “We won’t serve as the backdrop for the Likud’s election games,” Blue and White said. Gantz and Netanyahu had been due to meet this evening, although those talks have also been pulled. Likud said it was “stunned” by Blue and White’s actions, and accused the party of trying to “torpedo” the negotiations.

There are two apparently insurmountable obstacles to a deal between the two parties being brokered. First, Gantz has always insisted that, while he would form a unity administration with Likud, he will not go into government with Netanyahu while the prime minister remains under the threat of indictment. Rivlin is said to have attempted to square this circle by floating the idea that, were he indicted, Netanyahu would take a leave of absence, and a post of “interim prime minister” – which would have all the premier’s powers – would be established. This proposal did not apparently fly.

Second, immediately after the elections, Netanyahu concluded a pact with all of the parties in his right-wing and religious bloc – comprising not just Likud but the ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism and Shas parties and the pro-settler Yamina – under which he would negotiate on behalf of all of them. He is thus insisting that any deal with Blue and White should include all of his former coalition partners and allies. Blue and White, which is centrist and secular in outlook, appears to have balked at this precondition. It has demanded that any future talks can only go ahead if Likud effectively ditches the rest of the right-wing bloc.
If Netanyahu abandons his effort to form a government, Gantz’s chances are viewed by many as slim. Avigdor Liberman, the leader of the nationalist Yisrael Beitenu, is the effective kingmaker in the elections. His right-wing but fiercely secular party broke away from Netanyahu’s bloc after the April elections due to disagreements with the prime minister’s ultra-Orthodox allies. He did not nominate either to become prime minister and has repeatedly said he’ll only support a secular unity government involving Likud and Blue and White.

Liberman has also laid out a shopping list of demands designed to provoke fury among the prime minister’s ultra-Orthodox allies. The measures include a law that would conscript religious seminary students into the army, a requirement that ultra-Orthodox schools teach a national curriculum or lose state funding, and the overturning of a prohibition on shops from opening on the Sabbath. At the same time, though, Liberman has effectively stated that he won’t back a coalition with Gantz if he is propped up by the Arab parties, suggesting that “not even in a parallel universe” would he go into government with the Joint List.

Netanyahu’s political problems are both exacerbated by, and entangled with, his legal difficulties. In February, attorney general Avichai Mandelblit announced that the prime minister was facing possible charges of fraud, breach of trust and bribery. Netanyahu denies all the allegations. Those charges were pending pre-indictment hearings which began today and will continue early next week.

The allegations against Netanyahu are well-known.

In the first, “Case 1000”, the prime minister is accused of accepting gifts – including champagne, cigars and jewellery – totalling thousands of pounds from wealthy businessmen in return for advancing their interests.

In the second case, “Case 2000”, Netanyahu is accused of bribing Arnon Mozes, the owner of the Yedioth Ahronoth 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.

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.

Netanyahu’s lawyers will be attempting to refute the charges in Case 4000 today. According to media reports, the defence team will claim that Netanyahu simply followed the advice of government regulators; they will deny any give-and-take relations with Elovitch; they will stress that all politicians have complex relations with the media; and they will claim two state’s witnesses, including the prime minister’s former chief of staff, were put under unreasonable pressure to testify against Netanyahu.

Turning to Case 1000, Netanyahu’s attorneys will suggest it is permissible to receive gifts from friends and that the value of the gifts is much lower than the charges suggest.

In Case 2000, prosecutors have many hours of recordings between Netanyahu and Mozes. However, the prime minister’s team will argue that, despite all the talk, Netanyahu never intended to act on them.

If the charges go ahead – a final decision on whether to indict is reportedly expected by the end of the year – Netanyahu could nonetheless remain in office throughout any trial and indeed up to the point where the appeals process following conviction is exhausted. That, of course, depends on him remaining prime minister; something which last month’s election has, once again, failed to conclusively ensure.