Netanyahu speaks at Likud faction meeting.
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu responded to reports of his graft investigation by telling the media to hold off on planning celebrations and the opposition to wait before ordering new suits to wear as ministers.
The same can be said about potential successors within the Likud and outside it: Don’t hold your breath to become prime minister anytime soon.
Regardless of the outcome of the investigation, from both a political and a statutory standpoint it’s too early to be anticipating Netanyahu’s political demise.
But that doesn’t preclude us from exploring all the possibilities ahead.
The only scenario by which Netanyahu would be automatically required to leave his position is if he were found guilty of a crime with moral turpitude in a final ruling by the Supreme Court, Israel Democracy Institute Researcher Dr. Ofer Kenig explained on Monday.
That, of course, could take years, following an investigation, a trial and conviction in a lower court, an appeal, and finally a trial and conviction in the Supreme Court.
As far as what could happen in the interim, the law does not have a clear-cut stance.
“The only thing the law says is that if a prime minister is convicted in a district court and the Knesset decides he cannot properly do his job, the Knesset can force him to take a break,” Kenig said.
At least 60 MKs – meaning, some from the coalition – would have to vote in the plenum to remove the prime minister at that point.
As long as the law leaves an opening, only public and political pressure could remove Netanyahu from office because of an investigation or trial before it’s required.
In the case of former prime minister Ehud Olmert, political pressures led to his leaving office in 2008 after being investigated for many months, but before he was indicted.
Then-Labor Party leader Ehud Barak threatened to pull his party out of the coalition if Olmert didn’t resign, and Olmert said he would leave when his party elected a successor, which ended up being then-foreign minister Tzipi Livni. The cabinet voted Livni in as interim prime minister, but she was unable to keep the coalition intact, and an election was called for February 2009. Netanyahu has been prime minister ever since.
As far as the current coalition is concerned, it looks unlikely that an Olmert scenario would happen anytime soon. Coalition chairman David Bitan announced at Monday’s Likud faction meeting that the party stands behind Netanyahu, to applause from the MKs and ministers present, and party insiders say that is truly the case. There are several potential prime ministers waiting in the wings of the Likud, but the party’s members tend to be extremely loyal to its leader, and wouldn’t reward a Likud minister who brought Netanyahu down in such a way. Bayit Yehudi chairman Naftali Bennett sees himself as Netanyahu’s successor, but with only eight seats in the current Knesset, he wouldn’t be able to form a coalition without calling an election, so a move like that would be too risky for him.
Still, if the investigation ends up being as disruptive and long-lasting as Olmert’s were, things could change and pressure could rise even in the Likud.
In such a case, if there is enough pressure on Netanyahu to lead him to recuse himself until the investigation ends, Labor and Social Services Minister Haim Katz would become the leader of the Likud, because the job automatically goes to the central committee chairman. However, it would not make Katz interim prime minister; the cabinet would have to vote to fill that position.
A prime minister can only recuse himself – and even that’s unclear, since the law refers only to cases of poor health – for up to 100 days, before his or her replacement must form a new government or an election is called.
If Netanyahu’s break would really only be temporary, then filling in for him would be political suicide for any minister in the Likud, who Netanyahu would then proceed to undermine upon his return. The only minister who could do the job with little risk is perennially faithful Netanyahu loyalist National Infrastructure Minister Yuval Steinitz, who would not be suspected of betrayal and just be seen as keeping Netanyahu’s seat warm.
This is purely speculative, of course, and even if these scenarios could happen, that would not happen for a long time.
Netanyahu was questioned by police for the first time on these new suspicions on Monday night, and no matter what happens, he can certainly sit comfortably in the Prime Minister’s Office for many months to come.