Bibi’s last stand?

Netanyahu seeks to form a unity government while facing a pre-trial hearing.

PREISDENT REUVEN RIVLIN and party leaders - including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Blue and White leader Benny Gantz - pose for a photograph in the Chagall State Hall on October 3, when the 22nd Knesset was inaugurated. (photo credit: Courtesy)
PREISDENT REUVEN RIVLIN and party leaders - including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Blue and White leader Benny Gantz - pose for a photograph in the Chagall State Hall on October 3, when the 22nd Knesset was inaugurated.
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Three weeks after September’s inconclusive election, Benjamin Netanyahu was fighting for his political survival on two fronts.
After being tasked by President Reuven Rivlin with forming his fifth government, his efforts to form a coalition were deadlocked. At the same time, Attorney-General Avichai Mandelblit conducted a pre-trial hearing, after which he will decide whether to indict Netanyahu in three separate corruption cases.
The prevailing assessment, based on the election results, was that neither Netanyahu nor Benny Gantz , leader of the centrist Blue and White, would be able to cobble together a working majority, raising the daunting prospect of Israelis going to the polls again early next year for the third time within a year.
The fact that only 10 of the 13 members of the predominantly Arab Joint List were prepared to recommend Benny Gantz for prime minister left Netanyahu with more recommendations, and thus he was tapped by Rivlin in late October with forming a government.
Accepting the mandate, Netanyahu said he cannot form a government without Blue and White.
“We won’t be able to form a government unless we do it together,” he said, renewing the call for a unity government.
Urging “national reconciliation,” Netanyahu said that a unity government must be formed quickly for security and economic reasons, and the “one-time opportunity, which won’t return,” of the Trump peace deal.
“The nation needs to be united and prepared,” he said.
However, the initial contacts failed to produce a breakthrough, and it was clear that two main obstacles stand in the way of a unity government. The first is Netanyahu’s legal problems, with Blue and White insisting that they cannot serve in a government led by a prime minister suspected of corruption. The second problem is Netanyahu’s insistence that any coalition must include all the right-wing and religious parties traditionally allied with the Likud, representing 55 Knesset members.
Seeking a way out of the impasse, Netanyahu was even prepared to bury the hatchet with Avigdor Liberman, head of Yisrael Beytenu, which won eight seats. However, his meeting in early September with his arch-rival failed to produce a breakthrough, with Liberman insisting that the only way to avoid a another election was a three-party secular, liberal unity coalition, comprised of Likud, Blue and White and Yisrael Beytenu, representing 73 Knesset members.
In contrast to Blue and White, Yisrael Beytenu does not oppose Netanyahu serving as prime minister, even if indicted. However, Liberman wants legislation that would dramatically alter the current status quo on questions of religion and state – moves opposed by Netanyahu’s ultra-Orthodox allies, Shas and United Torah Judaism, and the right-wing Yamina party.
MK Yair Lapid, who holds the No. 2 slot in Blue and White and who was accused by the Likud of blocking unity efforts, announced that he was willing to waive his alternating premiership agreement with party chair Benny Gantz to facilitate a national unity coalition.
“There will not be an alternating premiership of three people,” Lapid said. “That is not serious. Running a country is a serious matter. It is much more important to me that there be unity in the people. That there not be [a new] election. That this country should start a process of healing, of changing priorities. The citizens of Israel deserve better. They deserve a stable unity government, with a prime minister who is not under indictment. They deserve a government that will deal with health, education and security, not with bribe-taking, fraud and breach of trust.”
Liberman welcomed Lapid’s announcement, calling it “a noble act.”
In the absence of an unexpected breakthrough, Netanyahu is expected to return his mandate to President Reuven Rivlin, who is then likely to tap Benny Gantz with the task of forming a government.
If Gantz fails as well, as expected, the Knesset will have 21 days to nominate an MK for prime minister, and the president will have to tap that person if he or she gets 61 signatures.
One scenario that could have extricated Israel from its political imbroglio was an internal Likud revolt – replacing Netanyahu with a new leader – but there are no signs of this happening any time soon.
When the 22nd Knesset was sworn in on September 3, Netanyahu announced that he was examining the possibility of holding a snap Likud primary, with party sources explaining that the aim was to “shatter the illusion of a revolt within the Likud, which other parties long for and which has delayed them from joining a unity government.”
However, after Gideon Sa’ar – considered Netanyahu’s most serious rival – posted on Twitter “I am ready,” the idea of a snap primary was dropped. Sa’ar confirmed that he would challenge Netanyahu whenever a primary is held. The Likud scheduled a meeting of its Central Committee to affirm its support for Netanyahu.
As the political deadlock continued, Mandelblit’s long-delayed pre-trial hearing into Netanyahu’s graft cases got under way in Jerusalem.
Netanyahu’s lawyers tried to persuade the attorney general to drop some, if not all, of the charges he faces: three counts of fraud, three counts of breach of trust, and one count of bribery.
Netanyahu denies all the charges, saying he is the victim of a left-wing and media witch-hunt designed to topple him from power.
The prevailing assessment is that ultimately some charges will remain against Netanyahu.
The top priority for the defense team is that the bribery charges are dropped. An indictment that includes only charges of fraud and breach of trust could make it easier for the prime minister to reach a plea bargain agreement and evade a sentence that involves time in prison.
Lawyer Amit Hadad, a member of Netanyahu’s legal team, expressed confidence that the charges would be dropped.
“We will present the evidence we are all familiar with, as well as new evidence,” Hadad said. “We believe that in the end, all three cases must be closed.”
Legally, Netanyahu can remain prime minister even if indicted, but such a scenario could end up with a petition to the Supreme Court challenging the legitimacy of his remaining in office, and could also undermine public support for him, particularly given the possibility of a third election within a year.
The first part of the hearing focused on Case 4,000, which involves suspicions that Netanyahu, while also serving as communications minister between 2015 and 2017, ensured lucrative financial benefits for Bezeq, Israel’s largest telecommunications company owned by Shaul Elovitch, in return for favorable coverage of 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 allegations.
The hearing then covered Cases 1000 and 2000.
In Case 1000, Netanyahu is alleged to have received gifts worth some $250,000, included cigars, pink champagne and jewelry, from wealthy friends.
Case 2000 centers on an allegation that Netanyahu asked Arnon Mozes, publisher of Yediot Aharonot, 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 and his wife, Miriam, close friends of the prime minister at the time.
The attorney-general is expected to decide by the end of the year whether to indict, and according to some reports, may fast-track a decision within a matter of weeks.
To ensure his political survival, Netanyahu needs to emerge unscathed from his legal battles, while maneuvering the coalition negotiations to ensure that he ends up as prime minister, either now or after another election in 2020. It could be a mission impossible, even for King Bibi.