What does the indictment of Benjamin Netanyahu really mean, in terms of the future – the coming years, the coming 3rd elections within a year? Is it possible that Netanyahu will still hold the reins of the Likud, and perhaps be elected Prime Minister for a fifth term?
The short answer is, yes, it is. It is possible.
Murmurings of mutiny in the Likud
Immediately following Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit’s announcement to indict the Prime Minister, Gideon Sa’ar, the number 5 on the Likud list, in Netanyahu’s party, called for primaries within the party ahead of the expected elections:
The right and necessary thing to do is to set up a timetable for Likud leadership primaries. That’s what the Likud constitution says…I think I will be able to form a government and unite the country and the nation.
This is not the first time that Sa’ar challenged Netanyahu in recent times. Early last month, when Netanyahu was suggesting primaries in order to secure his absolute standing in the party, Sa’ar immediately tweeted “I’m ready”, causing Netanyahu to close down the proposal immediately.
Notice in Sa’ar’s recent statements, the centrality of the “unity” idea. He is hinting at a unity government with Benny Gantz’s centrist Blue-White party. Gantz has said that he would not serve with an indicted Netanyahu, and the prospect of a unity government of the two main center-right parties, probably with Avigdor Lieberman of Israel Beitenu (who has insisted on such an outcome), appears to be the only way out of the political stalemate that has thrown Israel into an unprecedented forever-election cycle.
Israeli Channels 12 and 13 have been reporting about other murmurings of mutiny in the Likud, repeated by Times of Israel yesterday:
Several senior Likud lawmakers have reportedly been meeting behind the scenes in a bid to try and oust Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu following the attorney general’s explosive Thursday announcement that he will indict the Israeli leader in three corruption cases. According to a Channel 12 TV report on Friday, which did not cite sources, the senior Likud officials are convinced “the Netanyahu era is over” and are working to try dethrone him as head of the party within the current 21-day period allotted for the Knesset to agree on a prime minister before Israel would be forced to go to new elections. Channel 13 reported similar backroom talks, with one unnamed person saying: “We are trying to figure out how to wrest the party from his hands.”
But these are murmurings, whispers in the hallways. Besides the more outspoken Sa’ar, the official statements are mostly party line, Netanyahu loyalty statements. Following are but a few examples.
- Foreign Minister Yisrael Katz, number 3 in Likud:
“Israel is a state of law and the presumption of innocence is the right of every person, certainly of Prime Minister Netanyahu… So long as there is no legal objection to Netanyahu serving as prime minister he is permitted to remain in his job, and only the public and its representatives in the Knesset will decide democratically who will lead Israel.”
- Culture Minister Miri Regev, number 6 on the Likud list, turned the tables in defense of Netanyahu and said police and state prosecutors “cannot be immune from criticism and above the law”.
- Tourism Minister Yariv Levin, number 8 on the Likud list:
“We are being tested… The state of Israel owes Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu a great debt. Netanyahu has devoted his life to this country and to its defense. The injustice done to him tonight cries out to high heaven… (calling on fellow Likud members to) come together… We will keep our ranks united and continue as one to fight for our principles and our truth, and we will win.”
- Science Minister Ofir Akunis, number 14:
“From my 25-year acquaintance with him, which has known its ups and downs, I give my support to the prime minister and appreciate even more so his contribution over many years to Israel.”
- Justice Minister Amir Ohana, number 20:
“Benjamin Netanyahu is not a corrupt man… I’m proud to stand by him at this moment… and completely confident that the test of history will prove it’s the correct side to stand on.”
- Communications Minister David Amsalem, number 18:
“We won’t let the lie win!”
Notice that a couple of these comments support the Netanyahu claim that this is all just fake news and a personal witch-hunt against him.
So there is a strong body of loyalism supporting Netanyahu, and it is quite clear that the Likud is betting on better success for the right-wing in a coming election, no doubt through extension and further amplification of the message that a vote for Gantz is a vote for Arabs.
Now, can Netanyahu just go on? In principle there is no prohibition on a Prime Minister serving while facing indictment. What happens now is supposed to be a process in which the Prime Minister, within a month, appeals to the House Committee, arguing why immunity should apply. That committee then can bring the appeal to a parliamentary plenum voting. Under normal circumstances this can take some months. Furthermore, currently no such committee exists. The last one was dismantled, as Israel is running a transition-government. Even if the Knesset decides to create it for this purpose, the process could still drag on for months, and any vote would no doubt be contested and appealed in the High Court. The High Court process could take anywhere between 6 months and 2 years. Even if the High Court backs the charges and the matter goes to court, the whole process can easily end up taking years. In the meanwhile, theoretically at least, Netanyahu could claim innocence until proven guilty.
So we are at a very early stage in the criminal proceedings regarding Netanyahu. Those who have been cheering this as the end of the Netanyahu era are being premature. If one has learned anything about Netanyahu, Israel’s longest-serving Prime Minister, it is that he is an unsurpassed master at political survival. Every time he gets into an unprecedented situation where people think “this time, he couldn’t possibly make his way out of this”, he does it. ‘Netanyahoudini’, if you like. So don’t say ‘never again Netanyahu’. It ain’t over yet.
H/t Masih Sadat