The decision by Israeli Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit to indict Binyamin Netanyahu on charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust in four cases has triggered the most serious crisis that has ever faced the Hebrew state. It is a compounded crisis that damages the image of the state at home and abroad, and casts a dark shadow over the volatile political scene in Israel due to the inability to form a new government after two elections in less than six months. It also raises questions about the future of the Likud Party and the right-wing front after Netanyahu is gone (if he is found guilty).
A more pressing question is how Israel will survive these crises amid an unfavourable regional and international climate, including Iranian and Turkish moves in Syria, security threats on the border with the Gaza Strip, and an unknown future of US-Israeli relations due to the inquiry to impeach US President Donald Trump — the most pro-Israeli American president in US history.
Netanyahu described the decision to indict him as a political coup led by judicial powers in favour of his rivals. In a country that promotes itself as an oasis of democracy and rule of law in a region packed with authoritarian regimes, Netanyahu’s statement attacking Israel’s judiciary contradicts the image they want to portray, but this discrepancy is much older than Netanyahu’s insult to Israel’s judiciary. The Israel Democracy Institute documented that starting a decade ago respect by the Israeli public of the democracy-based political system began to fall. During that time, more than half the public said they wanted a strong figure to lead the country, rather than see improvement in the performance of the Knesset, government or bolstering democracy.
In April 2016, The Times of Israel website held a debate under the telling title, “Is this the beginning of the end of Israeli democracy?” Discussions focused on the future of Israeli democracy in light of the Knesset adopting discriminatory and racist laws against Arab-Israeli citizens, and due to rampant corruption and favouritism in government and state agencies, and the absence of transparency and legal accountability.
Although indicting Netanyahu may appear to support democracy and demonstrate that no one is above the law, his attack on the judiciary and readiness of his supporters to protest against Mandelblit highlights the future threat to Israel’s image at home and abroad as a country that claims to be a democracy.
What made matters worse is that Netanyahu’s indictment further compounded the ongoing political crisis since April. Netanyahu failed to form a coalition government after elections in April, so elections took place again six months later. The results prevented Likud and its rival Kahol Lavan (Blue and White) Party from forming a new cabinet. While Israeli President Reuven Rivlin gave any Knesset member until 11 December to attempt to form a coalition, Netanyahu — who refused to resign as interim prime minister — is working hard to sabotage any attempt to form such a government. He is hoping the deadline comes and goes, and that elections are held again early next year or in March 2020, so he can continue in his post longer and have leverage to sabotage his upcoming trial.
According to Israeli law, the Knesset must first vote on stripping Netanyahu of immunity so he can appear in court. Second, the Supreme Court must decide on the legality of prosecuting a sitting prime minister if the Knesset is dissolved before it votes on lifting Netanyahu’s immunity. There is no clear legal clause allowing such action, except for cabinet members. Netanyahu could relinquish some of the cabinet portfolios he holds in case the attorney general decides to prosecute him as a cabinet member, whether or not he is also prime minister.
Irrespective of the crisis regarding lifting Netanyahu’s immunity or the legality of prosecuting a sitting prime minister, another threat to the future of politics in Israel is also on the horizon. Due to the continued deterioration of left-wing parties (Labour and Meretz) and the fragility of their rival coalition Kahol Lavan and political inexperience of its leader Benny Gantz, Likud and the right-wing front were the main political force that strengthened Israel’s political system and maintained its cohesion. Most agree that for more than 15 years, Netanyahu was key to maintaining Likud after Ariel Sharon left in 2005, and for a decade succeeded in leading the right-wing front. There are concerns that if he disappears from the political scene, due to a guilty verdict, this could compound the crisis of the political system in Israel.
Until the late 1980s, this system struck a steady balance between the right led by the Likud and the left led by Labour, and both blocs shared the majority of Knesset seats. By the 1990s, both Likud and Labour lost a substantial part of their power and together were winning fewer than half the Knesset seats. This paved the way for smaller parties to play a bigger role in the formation of coalition governments since then. As left-wing parties deteriorated further, the right-wing front successfully led by Netanyahu was able to restore balance in Israel’s political system by pivoting around a strong right-wing bloc that was always able to form a coalition government, in the face of small parties that were not united in a strong front composed of left-wing, Arab and centre parties.
If Netanyahu is eliminated from the political scene this would lead to a political system without big parties or broad fronts. It is unclear how Israel would address this problem, especially since disputes in Likud and the right-wing front have already started since Netanyahu was indicted. In Likud, Netanyahu’s main rival, Gideon Saar, is trying to depose Netanyahu and choose a new Likud leader to negotiate with parties in the Knesset on forming a government, to save the country from a third round of elections in less than one year. Netanyahu’s supporters within the party, however, are strongly opposed to the move. It also seems none of the other parties in the right-wing front (Yamina, Shas and Yahadut HaTorah) are willing to abandon Netanyahu right now, in case he is not found guilty and returns stronger than before. They worry that Saar, who wants to succeed Netanyahu, could exclude right-wing parties and reconnect with Yisrael Beiteinu led by Avigdor Lieberman to form a cabinet that also includes Kahol Lavan.
Netanyahu is aware of the concerns of his supporters in Likud that the party will disintegrate after his departure, and is also aware of similar concerns in the right-wing front. He is manipulating the fears of Israeli voters of handing power to inexperienced parties such as Kahol Lavan, at a time when Israel needs a strong experienced leader to face security threats on several fronts and the unknown fate of US-Israeli relations. Trump might remain in power and pursue his “Deal of the Century” proposal, which Israel is concerned about due to its ramifications (creating a Palestinian state, relations with Washington), or Trump could be impeached and replaced by a new president who is not as infatuated with Israel.
Netanyahu will go down fighting in the hope that the 11 December deadline is not met. He also hopes pressure will build on the attorney general and the Supreme Court to allow him to remain in power, and maybe even contest the next elections, prolonging Israel’s maelstrom of litigation about Netanyahu’s fate and further exacerbate the country’s political crisis.
There is a slim possibility that Likud turns against Netanyahu and deposes him suddenly, and his rival Saar is able to convince his party, Kahol Lavan and Yisrael Beiteinu to form a government led by him and Gantz alternately. This would usher in an uncertain era in Israeli politics that would lead them into the unknown.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 28 November, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly