Netanyahu has been wounded and the vultures are circling, but is his wound a mortal one?
For the first time in Israeli history, Israeli attorney general Mandelblit indicted today an incumbent prime minister on three counts, all felonies, that revolve around bribery and breach of public trust. This came as no surprise since most observers of the Israeli political scene on both sides of the pro and anti-Netanyahu divide knew that Mandelblit’s office was way too invested in the buildup of these cases to just let them go after the hearing process that is accorded in Israel to senior public figures.
The question is what will happen now and how will this development affect the formation of the new government. In the Israeli political system, Netanyahu wears three different hats: that of a member of the Knesset, a government minister, and the prime minister. In his role as a member of the Knesset, Netanyahu can invoke parliamentary immunity from prosecution. However, for this to stick it has to be upheld by the Knesset judiciary committee, which will have to show that his potentially felonious actions derived directly from his parliamentary activities or that the prosecution was politically motivated. Such a determination is rather unlikely in this case, but there is precedent for members of the Knesset to continue serving while under indictment, so there is little trouble for Netanyahu on this front.
On being a minister in his own government, things become rather more interesting. According to precedent with the leader of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party Aryeh Der’i, an indicted minister must be fired by the prime minister though he can continue serving as a member of the Knesset. Will Netanyahu follow precedent and resign his positions as the minister for labor and social services, as the minister for the diaspora, and as the minister for health, all titles that he is holding now due to the transitory nature of the Israeli government after two successive elections failed to produce a permanent one? This is unlikely at least until the end of the three week period that is still now open for the formation of a new government and before a new election in March of next year is called. Once this period runs out and if no new government is formed, Netanyahu may well resign his placeholder titles and assign them to various members of the Knesset that support him.
Coming now to the Netanyahu’s role as prime minister, we are in uncharted waters. An Israeli Prime minister has never been indicted before. Treating him as simply a minister runs afoul of the problem that there is no one in the Israeli political hierarchy that can fire him. The law states simply that a prime minister who has been convicted of a crime must resign. Netanyahu has not been convicted of anything and the road to a conviction is long and winding.
In his speech today after the formal indictments were announced and in a subsequent series of tweets, Netanyahu has made it clear that he sees his investigation and indictments as completely politically motivated with not a shred of truth to any of them. He called the process a travesty and a miscarriage of justice for political purposes and vowed to remain at his post while his case proceeds to trial and he is proven innocent. To do that Netanyahu needs the unshakable support of members of his own party, the Likud, and the religious parties that make up a bloc of 55 members of the Knesset. Some fissures have already begun to open in this bloc even before the announcement of the indictments when Gideon Sa’ar, a long time challenger of Netanyahu from within the Likud and one other back-bencher announced that they support a primary process to determine who should be leading the Likud party and the Israeli right as a whole.
At this time it appears that Netanyahu’s loyalty to his bloc through the coalition negotiations and the fact that politically-driven prosecutions against right wing politicians in Israel are a matter of fact rather than fiction may allow Netanyahu to retain enough internal support to remain at his post, but one thing is for certain: the indictments have all but sealed Israel’s fate for a new election. The reason for that is that all leaders of the Blue and White party have long since committed to not entering a coalition with an indicted prime minister and this takes off the table the possibility of a so-called “unity government”. The only other way to forestall an election is for Avigdor Lieberman and his Israel Beitenu party to join a religious-right coalition under Netanyahu’s leadership, something that Lieberman could have done after the April election and every day since the current one, but has steadfastly eschewed.
Perhaps there is the slightest of possibilities that Lieberman, himself no stranger to politically motivated prosecutions, might decide that he had dragged his mentor-nemesis Netanyahu through enough mud and that the sentiment of his own voters being firmly on the right, he should make a religious right government possible after all. If he manages to extract a few concessions on the matter of religious coercion in every day Israeli life from the religious parties, he will undoubtedly be the hero of the day. For now, Lieberman has avoided heated commentary, saying only that the wheels of justice must be allowed to turn. He is playing his cards close to his chest.
The next few hours and days will show us if Netanyahu’s fate is to stay in the prime minister’s office or whether his enemies both in an out of his own political camp have finally managed to mortally wound the old lion. Stay tuned, it will be a wild ride.
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