Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu was indicted on Thursday on charges of bribery, fraud, and breach of trust, throwing into doubt the political future of the country’s longest-serving prime minister. But while his critics may cheer, his legal plight won’t necessarily prevent him from remaining in power or resolve the political crisis that has consumed the Israeli government for the past year.
Underscoring the depth of that crisis, Netanyahu’s indictment came a day after his chief rival for the prime ministry, Benny Gantz, reported to Israeli president Reuven Rivlin that he had been unable to form a government within the time allotted to him. In September’s national election, Gantz’s Blue and White faction won a one-seat lead over Netanyahu’s Likud Party, but Rivlin gave Netanyahu the first shot at forming a government as his prospective right-wing coalition was larger than the collection of centrist and left-wing parties that might caucus with Blue and White. When the incumbent prime minister failed to form a governing coalition in the Knesset, Gantz was given an opportunity to try.
Israelis might be feeling some déjà vu, as that election was already a do-over from one held in April, when the result was a dead heat and neither leader was able to form a majority. Now that both of the leading parties have failed to form a government, Israeli election rules dictate that the leader of any party can now attempt to do so within the next three weeks. Most likely, nobody will, which means Israelis will have to go to the polls for a third time next March and try yet again to elect a functioning legislature.
Netanyahu’s indictment has been a long time coming; Israeli attorney general Avichai Mandelblit announced in February that he would recommend one. But Mandelblit has been under intense political pressure regarding the timing of the announcement that finally came on Thursday. He couldn’t announce an indictment before the election, lest it sway the electorate, but if Likud had won decisively and Netanyahu had formed a government last month, it would have been politically dicey, to say the least, to prosecute a newly reelected PM with a popular mandate.
Needless to say, this made Netanyahu particularly desperate for a win. Since May, his loyalists had been pushing a bill that would grant him (and all other members of the Knesset) automatic immunity from prosecution. With no government in place, no such get-out-of-jail-free card will be forthcoming, but in the meantime, the political stalemate may work to Netanyahu’s advantage. As a Knesset member, he will now have the right to ask his colleagues for procedural immunity before Mandelblit formally files charges against him in court. Normally, this request would be considered by the Knesset House Committee and then the full chamber, but since there is no government, there is no House Committee, so nobody can consider his immunity until after another election is held, a government (hopefully) formed, and a new Knesset seated — which might not happen for another six months.
In accordance with legal precedent, Netanyahu will have to resign the four other ministerial portfolios he currently holds, but ironically may be able to legally retain the prime ministry. No sitting Israeli premier has ever been indicted before, and the law does not require an indicted prime minister to resign until they have been convicted and exhausted their appeals.
The unprecedented situation raises a number of novel constitutional questions for Israel. Some lawmakers plan to petition the Israeli Supreme Court for a ruling on whether Netanyahu must resign. The court is also likely to be asked whether he has the right to attempt to form another government after the next elections, in which case it might rule that Rivlin can hand that task to another member of Likud instead of Netanyahu, if the right-wing party prevails. The opposition Labor-Gesher coalition is also asking the Knesset legal adviser to set up a committee to consider Netanyahu’s immunity before the next election.
For now, anyway, Netanyahu remains the interim prime minister, which gives him a bully pulpit from which to fight his impending prosecution and some political tools to gum up the works of the justice system — and put off his day in court. Echoing his American counterpart and political kindred spirit Donald Trump, Netanyahu has decried the charges against him as a politically motivated “witch hunt” and cast himself as the victim of a conspiracy of deep-state bureaucrats and fake-news media outlets. He was characteristically defiant on Thursday, calling the indictment a “coup attempt” and the prosecutors behind it corrupt (Mandelblit himself is a Netanyahu appointee and previously served as his Cabinet secretary). He even demanded that an independent body “investigate the investigators,” evoking another Trump trope.
Even if this indictment leads to Netanyahu’s downfall, it doesn’t necessarily solve the bigger problem of Israel’s partisan deadlock. The country finds itself in an untenable situation in which no workable combination of major and minor parties can form a majority in the legislature. Likud and its allies on the religious right come up just short, as do Blue and White, the remnants of the Jewish left, and the Joint List of Arab-majority political parties.
The kingmaker (or perhaps more aptly in this case, king-breaker) is Avigdor Lieberman, head of the secular nationalist Yisrael Beiteinu Party, which controlled enough seats after September’s election to hand the majority to either side. Lieberman is a vitriolic racist who has called Arab members of the Knesset a fifth column, advocated the beheading of Arab Israelis who don’t support the Jewish state, and enthused about bombing Palestinian civilians, forcible population transfers, and other war crimes — so he won’t join a Gantz coalition with the Joint List. Yet he is somehow less awful than the rest of the Israeli far right because he opposes turning Israel into a full-blown theocracy — so he won’t join a Netanyahu coalition with ultra-Orthodox parties.
Lieberman’s position after the September polls was that he would only join a national-unity government of Likud and Blue and White together. The two parties briefly discussed the possibility, but talks quickly broke down, in part because Gantz did not want to share the prime ministry with someone who was under criminal investigation. In this regard, Netanyahu’s indictment could pave the way to a resolution after the next election if his party decides to get rid of him, as Gantz has indicated that he would be willing to consider a unity government with a post-Netanyahu Likud.
One of Netanyahu’s main rivals within Likud, the popular young lawmaker Gideon Sa’ar, is pushing for a leadership contest, arguing that Netanyahu would likely fail a third time to form a government if Likud prevails in another do-over election. Between this intraparty power struggle and the effort among the opposition to ensure that he can’t evade prosecution or lead a new government, the prime minister’s days may indeed be numbered.
Yet even this would not necessarily guarantee that the next Israeli election produces a Knesset capable of assembling a government. The structural problems in Israel’s current politics are far greater than one man. Even a national-unity government with someone like Sa’ar leading Likud would face insurmountable differences among its constituents regarding existential questions about Israel’s future, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and what it means to be a Jewish state. Netanyahu’s many years in power have been formative for Israel in the 21st century; the fruits of his divisive leadership will live on long after he is gone.