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Israel Featured Item

Is the curtain finally coming down on Netanyahu’s reign?

  • Paula
For the first time ever, Israel is being led by a prime minister under indictment. Fighting the biggest political battle of his life, Benjamin Netanyahu is holding onto his position as if his life depends on it. To some extent it does. Should he be admired – or not – for refusing to step down?
by PAULA SLIER | Nov 28, 2019

About half of Israelis think he shouldn’t be, and that his time has passed. Of those recently polled, only one-third support him in the top position, and admire his struggle to stay there.

It took nearly three years, but Israel’s attorney-general finally decided to indict Netanyahu on charges of bribery, fraud, and breach of trust in three separate corruption cases. The prime minister faces charges of receiving hundreds of thousands of rands worth of champagne and cigars, favourable press coverage, and good publicity in exchange for billions to his benefactors in regulatory policies.

Netanyahu denies any wrongdoing, and has accused law enforcement agencies and the Israeli media of trying to stage a coup against him. He’s now left with three courses of action: he can again try to claim immunity from prosecution; he can fight the charges in court; or he can try to arrange for a plea bargain in which he’d have to give up his position and in return would not go to jail. However, it’s no longer guaranteed that the attorney-general is still open to the last option.

Israeli law requires a prime minister to step down if convicted – but not when indicted. By comparison, a minister or government official in the same situation would have to forfeit his position. So Netanyahu will have to give up the four ministerial portfolios he’s held while continuing to serve as prime minister – health, social welfare, diaspora, and acting agricultural minister. But it’s the one he will still retain that’s he’s fighting tooth and nail to keep.

Whether he succeeds or not depends to a large degree on what his Likud party decides to do with him. After neither Netanyahu nor his chief rival, Benny Gantz of the Blue and White Party, was able to form a coalition following elections in September, the field is now open for another parliamentarian to do so. Assuming that this doesn’t happen by 11 December – and it’s highly likely it won’t – the country will then head into an unprecedented third election in 12 months. At this point in time, an election next March seems all but inevitable.

The only way to prevent it would be for the Likud central committee to hold primary elections and choose another party leader. Gantz has repeatedly said he is willing to team up with Likud so long as it’s not headed by Netanyahu. Such a unity government would avert another election.

Netanyahu’s advisers say he would be willing to hold a leadership primary in six weeks. The timing is intentional because by then, the 11 December deadline will have passed and a Likud primary will need to be held so the party can choose a candidate for the next Knesset (parliament) election. In such a scenario, Likud is unlikely to field anyone else than the experienced Netanyahu to face off against Gantz, whose bloc won the most parliamentary seats in the previous poll.

This past weekend, Likud legislator Gideon Sa’ar, expressed his support for the primaries and his intention to run, claiming that, unlike Netanyahu, he could “easily form a government”.

Sa’ar is a former minister who left Likud over disagreements with Netanyahu, but recently returned with strong backing. To date, he is the only senior party member to challenge the prime minister openly, but there are several who are eyeing the top seat and lining up in the wings.

Critics accuse Sa’ar of mounting a coup. He’s certainly taking a political gamble, and while most observers don’t believe he can usurp Netanyahu, this is a chance for Sa’ar to raise his profile – but also the ire of Netanyahu.

“Does anyone think that in a third, fourth, fifth, or sixth election, he [Netanayhu] could form a government?” Sa’ar asked recently. “Either this crisis continues, or G-d forbid, we’ll lose power to our rivals.”

Sa’ar’s only chance of becoming leader of Likud is if it happens before 11 December. He could then form a unity government and prevent another round of polls. With a widely unpopular election do-over looming, Likud might decide it’s not worth rallying around Netanyahu and move to dump him. That’s one scenario.

But people are afraid of Netanyahu. There’s also a fair amount of inertia to change things, and he is still hugely popular within the party. In another scenario, Netanyahu wins the primaries and, as unimaginable as it may seem now, also wins next March’s election. He could then try to defend himself during a trial while leading the country. This is unchartered water for Israeli society.

The closest it came to such a situation was when corruption charges were brought against former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert in 2005. Ironically, Netanyahu was among those who called for him to resign, but whereas Olmert had already resigned by the time he was indicted in 2009, Netanyahu is far from doing this.

It’s worth remembering that it took seven years for Olmert’s conviction to be upheld, and then he served only 16 of a 27-month prison sentence. Netanyahu is playing for time, and despite many of the Israeli editorials declaring the demise of “King Bibi”, it’s still too soon to write him off.

Netanyahu’s already got his talking points for his next election bid written out: the conspiracy to oust a prime minister by an attempted coup; the Iranian threat; and the danger of a Blue and White government with Arab support.

But Netanyahu will be able to use these messages only if Likud, whose members have overwhelmingly supported him in the past, again puts its faith in him.

The party has only had four leaders since it first came to power in 1977 – Menachem Begin, Yitzhak Shamir, Ariel Sharon, and Netanyahu. Since then, it has spent three-quarters of its time in office, thanks in no small part to “King Bibi”, the longest-serving Israeli prime minister. Netanyahu has a reputation for winning elections – and that’s the main reason Likudniks stuck by him.

But he isn’t winning them any longer – even before the indictment for bribery, fraud, and breach of trust. Will his supporters remain convinced that he is still a viable candidate with a moral leg to stand on? Will they give him a third chance to form a government? Or has the curtain finally come down on Netanyahu’s career that has all the makings of a Shakespearean tragedy?

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