Benjamin Netanyahu’s indictment plummets Israel into political turmoil

Netanyahu is fighting for his political survival as Israel faces the prospect of its third election in under a year with a prime minister facing charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust.

(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Benjamin Netanyahu
is fighting for his political survival as Israel faces the prospect of its third election in under a year with a prime minister facing charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust in three separate graft cases.
After three years of legal wrangling, Attorney-General Avichai Mandelblit announced the indictments on November 21, making Netanyahu the first prime minister in Israeli history to be indicted while still in office. Mandelblit called the decision “a difficult and sad day” and said his ruling was made “with a heavy heart but also with a whole heart.
According to the indictments, the prime minister “damaged the image of the public service and public trust in it” and is suspected of abusing his position and status, and of knowingly “taking a bribe as a public servant in exchange for actions related to your position.”
In a live television address shortly after the indictments were announced, Netanyahu launched a bitter attack on the law enforcement agencies, accusing them of plotting “a coup” to topple him from power. He vowed to remain as prime minister while he fights to clear his name, describing the whole judicial process against him as “flawed.”
Opposition politicians called on Netanyahu, Israel’s longest-serving leader, to step down immediately saying the indictment marked the beginning of the end of the Bibi era as he has lost all moral justification to remain in office.
Case 4000 involves suspicions that Netanyahu, when he also served as communications minister between 2015 and 2017, ensured financial benefits amounting to 1.8 billion shekels ($500 million) for Bezeq, Israel’s largest telecommunications company, which was owned by Shaul Elovitch, in return for favorable coverage for Netanyahu and his wife Sara on the popular news website Walla! also owned by Elovitch. This is the most serious of the three cases and the only one involving bribery charges.
In Case 1000, Netanyahu is alleged to have received gifts worth 700,000 shekels ($200,000) including cigars, pink champagne and jewellery from wealthy friends.
Case 2000 centers on an allegation that Netanyahu asked Arnon “Noni” Mozes, the publisher of the Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper, for positive coverage in exchange for help in reining in a rival publication, the popular, pro-Netanyahu free newspaper Yisrael Hayom, owned by American casino mogul Sheldon Adelson, a close friend of the prime minister at the time.
Netanyahu has always denied all the charges, saying he is the victim of a left-wing and media witch-hunt designed to overturn the will of the electorate.
The attorney general’s decision effectively marked the end of the efforts to form a national unity government following September’s inconclusive election, meaning Israel is in all likelihood facing its third election within a year.
Just a few hours before the attorney general’s announcement, President Reuven Rivlin informed Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein that both main parties, Likud and Blue and White, had failed to cobble together a working coalition.
An unprecedented situation was created under which the Knesset was granted 21 days to nominate a candidate who can muster the support of a majority – 61 members of the 120-seat Knesset. Such an outcome was unlikely and was made even more difficult following Mandelblit’s ruling to indict the prime minister.
Rivlin, who had drawn up a draft framework for a unity government including Likud and Blue and White, told the Knesset Speaker, “This is a time of unprecedented darkness in the history of the State of Israel.”
He urged lawmakers to show “statesmanship” by working together to prevent third elections.
Even if the decision to indict the prime minister marks the beginning of the end of his domination of Israeli politics, one thing is certain: Israel’s longest-serving leader is not going without a fight.
“In this tainted process the investigators weren’t after the truth, they were after me,” he said, accusing the detectives of framing him, extorting witnesses as done by criminals and even claiming the public should demand that the detectives be investigated.
The time frame is unclear but the legal process is expected to drag on for many years. Netanyahu is only obliged to step down if a guilty verdict has been handed down at the end of an appeal process, although he will be required to resign from the other ministerial positions he holds, the health, welfare and Diaspora affairs portfolios.
The opening of a trial could be delayed for months by a new election next year and any moves by Netanyahu to secure Knesset immunity from prosecution.
The Knesset House Committee must decide whether or not to grant Netanyahu immunity. However, due to the fact that Israel has been run by two transitional governments for most of this year, the House Committee has not been appointed since April. As long as his immunity has not been lifted, the attorney general cannot submit the indictment against him to the court.
The Knesset is likely to postpone the issue until a new government is formed although there may be an attempt to form an ad-hoc House Committee to review the immunity request.
Israel has now entered uncharted waters, politically and legally, and key questions remain unanswered. To ensure political stability a prime minister was given special status under Israeli law and that is the reason Netanyahu does not have to step down after being indicted. However, it is not clear if a politician under indictment can form a government. The attorney general will have to decide, although he will likely only do so if, and when, such a scenario becomes relevant.
The role of prime minister of Israel is one of the most challenging in the world. All Israeli leaders make life and death decisions on a regular basis. Take this month as a case in point: 450 rockets were fired from Gaza, bringing much of the country to a standstill and on the northern front Israel attacked some two dozen Iranian and Syrian targets inside Syria after rockets were launched aimed at the Golan Heights.
It is inconceivable that a leader with the ultimate responsibility for these threats will have to devote half his time to clearing his name in court.
There are no signs yet of a full-fledged revolt within the ruling Likud to replace Netanyahu as leader. However, one of his main rivals, Gideon Sa’ar, a former education and interior minister, insisted that a Likud leadership primary take place within the 21-day period the Knesset has to come up with a candidate for prime minister.
However, the initiative was rejected and it appears the Likud will hold a leadership primary but only after the date for dissolving the Knesset. Sa’ar said he would be able to form a government and unite the country.
“Does anybody think that in any third, fourth, fifth or sixth elections, he [Netanyahu] could create a government? Either there’ll be a continuation of this [political] crisis, or heaven forbid, we’ll lose power to our rivals,” Sa’ar told Channel 12 news.
Blue and White leader Benny Gantz urged Likud MKs to abandon Netanyahu and join a power-sharing government in which he would serve the first two years as prime minister, to be followed by Netanyahu if he clears himself of all wrongdoing in court.
“Likud leaders, it’s time to make your voice heard,” Gantz said. “The last days and weeks leave no room for doubt – Netanyahu risks igniting a civil war between us.”
The Likud members will have to decide if they really want to go into an election led by a politician under indictment. The answer will probably be yes, leaving the electorate to decide if they really want Netanyahu to lead them for another four years while he is facing serious criminal charges.