How a Netanyahu indictment changes Israel’s elections

It is not impossible to envision a scenario where no single party will be able to form a coalition.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and  Attorney-General Avichai Mandelblit (photo credit: EMIL SALMAN/HAARETZ/MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Attorney-General Avichai Mandelblit
There are two ways to look at Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s request that Attorney-General Avichai Mandelblit postpone his decision on an indictment until after the elections.
As has been widely reported, Mandelblit appears close to deciding – pending a hearing, of course – to indict Israel’s prime minister on charges of fraud and bribery in Case 4000, widely known as the “Bezeq-Walla Affair.”
On the one hand, this seems like an attempt to save Netanyahu from political doom. If the prime minister is concerned that a decision to indict – even if dependent on a hearing – would cost him votes, he would want to postpone it for as long as possible. This way, even though every Israeli will go to the polls knowing that an indictment might be on the way, that is still different than a fait accompli.
On the other hand, it is possible that Netanyahu is going through the motions because he wants the public to think that he is under attack – he wants voters going to the polls believing there is a conspiracy being run out of the Justice Ministry to bring him down, that the Left is out to unseat the Right.
While this might seem strange, Netanyahu might actually want Mandelblit to indict him before elections, and for his investigations to be the focus of this election. According to this line of thinking, Netanyahu wants the entire election campaign not to be about policy – which would require the Likud to publish a platform, something it hasn’t done for years – but instead be about him and only him, and about the so-called leftwing conspiracy aimed at taking him down.
NETANYAHU HOPES that the indictment will rally the votes and help him repeat his success in 2015 of instilling fear within the right-wing base that he is about to lose. If that happens, Israelis considering voting for other parties on the Right – like New Right, Bayit Yehudi, Yisrael Beytenu or Kulanu – will fall into line behind Netanyahu and Likud, and he will once again emerge with the largest number of Knesset seats.
This would be similar to Shas’s “He is Innocent” campaign from 1999, when Aryeh Deri was on trial. Shas succeeded then in winning 17 seats, seven more than it had in the previous Knesset.
Considering Netanyahu’s decision this week to transfer another $15 million from Qatar to Hamas in Gaza, this would make sense. Netanyahu knows that the cash transfers to Hamas make him vulnerable to attacks from the Right. He wishes he didn’t have to make them – but he also knows that the so-called protection money is preferable over a large-scale conflict. Israelis might not like paying Hamas, but they like burying soldiers and civilians a lot less.
By keeping the media and public focused on his investigations, Netanyahu is able to divert attention away from what might be happening in Gaza and the payments his government is effectively making to Hamas. It might be a gamble, but it is one Netanyahu feels is worth taking.
SIMILAR TO the last election, most Israelis currently assume that Netanyahu will be their next prime minister. This is based largely on the polls that show Likud leading and the fact that no other candidate beats Netanyahu on the suitability- to-serve-as-Israel’s-PM scale. This is the prism through which the entire election is being looked at.
But that won’t necessarily remain the case. The fact that Netanyahu is crying foul at such an early stage of the campaign (in 2015, he only did so in the final days before the election) shows just how nervous he really is.
What has him on edge is that no Israeli prime minister has ever run for office with an indictment hanging over their head. While it is true that most Israelis already assume he will be indicted, there is a difference between voting with an assumption, to voting after the attorney- general has already announced his damning decision to indict. While Netanyahu might be strong now, what happens the day after an indictment is uncharted territory. Netanyahu will be going where no Israeli PM has gone before.
This new and unprecedented situation is exactly what Netanyahu’s adversaries are waiting for. Gantz, for example, thinks that if Netanyahu gets indicted, there is a chance centrist Likud voters will move over to his party; Naftali Bennett is hoping that once Gantz speaks and is accused of being a “leftist” and Netanyahu is indicted, right-wing voters will move to his party; and Avi Gabbay is praying that when Netanyahu is indicted he will steal seats from Gantz and Yair Lapid since the Labor Party head is so far the only party chief to vow that he will not sit in a coalition led by Netanyahu.
WILL ANY of this happen? That remains unclear. What will definitely happen is that all party leaders will need to voice an opinion about Netanyahu on whether he can remain prime minster once he is indicted, something many of them have refrained from doing. They will also need to tell the public whether they will agree to sit in a future coalition led by him.
Bennett, for example, would have to consider launching direct attacks against the prime minister and the Likud, something he and New Right co-founder Ayelet Shaked have so far held back doing. Lapid and Gantz will be forced to say something on whether they will be willing to join the coalition of a prime minister who is on his way to being indicted, something they too have preferred to avoid.
Gantz and Lapid speaking out could upend the whole way we have been looking at these elections. If all the party heads – except for Bennett, Avigdor Liberman and the haredim – say they will not sit in a government led by Netanyahu, current Likud voters could flee the party. Likudniks vote for a winner; if polls suddenly show that Netanyahu might get the most seats but will not be able to form a coalition, the whole electoral map could change.
The two parties that stand to gain the most from this scenario are the New Right and Gantz’s Israel Resilience.
While it is now difficult to imagine either of them overtaking the Likud in the number of seats they will win in the next Knesset, it is not impossible to envision a scenario where no single party will be able to form a coalition. Netanyahu will not have enough partners, and none of the parties in the center will agree on someone who should lead them. We could potentially find ourselves in an electoral stalemate.
There are just over 10 weeks until Israel goes to the polls. While Netanyahu seems strong, these elections are far from over.