Early Israel election increasingly likely as Netanyahu’s troubles deepen

Some Israeli lawmakers see early elections as the likely outcome of Netanyahu's legal troubles.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu votes in Israel's last election. Credit: Marc Israel Sellem/POOL/Flash90.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu votes in Israel's last election. Credit: Marc Israel Sellem/POOL/Flash90.

As ongoing and newly opened investigations involving Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu continue to develop, it is increasingly likely that he may call an early election, and that his government will not complete a four-year term in office, according to Israeli political circles.

Many Israeli lawmakers think that Netanyahu will seek to move up the next general election—currently set for Nov. 5, 2019—allowing voters to decide the fate of his government rather than resign from office. The fact that his Likud Party is seeing an upswing in political polls may contribute to the prime minister’s decision to hold an election.

Following the publication of the Israel police’s recommendations in the cases involving Netanyahu, coalition party heads announced on Tuesday that they do not intend at this time to move to dissolve the current government, but that could change depending on developments in the investigations. Still, it is more likely that Netanyahu himself would opt for early elections than one of his coalition partners forcing his hand.

Many believe that if Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit decides to indict Netanyahu on one or more counts of the allegations against him, particularly if it is a count such as breach of trust, the prime minister might demand early elections as a way of asking the public to demonstrate its faith in him.

Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely said on Tuesday that “the understanding in political circles is that if Netanyahu is indicted, the current government will not remain in place.”

A few weeks ago, an official from the Kulanu Party said that if an indictment or indictments were served, “the assessment is that Netanyahu will not put us in the position of facing this dilemma and will dissolve the government himself.”

On Tuesday evening, after it was revealed that former Ministry of Communications Director-General Shlomo Filber had agreed to serve as state’s witness in Case 4000, the latest investigation into alleged corruption and impropriety involving Netanyahu, Labor Party leader Avi Gabbay sent a letter to party activists in which he called the prime minister a “criminal” and decreed that “the Netanyahu era is over.”

“The criminal house of cards that the prime minister has built these past few years—the stain on public service, the attack on rule of law, the threat to freedom of the press, and above all, the factionalization and setting various groups in Israeli society against each other—is collapsing on him and those around him,” wrote Gabbay.

He called on Netanyahu to resign, saying, “We must all focus on one goal: winning the election and bringing Israel a principled, honest government that conducts itself with transparency, does not zigzag and is not in thrall to any tycoon.”

Gabbay, a former director general of the Bezeq telecom company, which is at the center of Case 4000, said that a government under his leadership would be obligated to the citizens, not businessmen.

Coalition chairman David Amsalem stood by Netanyahu on Wednesday, saying that “a state’s witness is the lowest kind of criminal because he rats on his friends.”

Likud Knesset Member Miki Zohar tweeted shortly after the State’s Attorney’s Office signed the witness agreement with Filber that “we stand with the prime minister today, and at all times.”

“Only the attorney general and the court can rule on the legal cases that [people] are trying to bring against Netanyahu—not the Left, not the media, and not the police,” he tweeted.

Zohar went on compare the “political persecution” of Netanyahu to the assassination of former Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.

Zohar said that if Netanyahu were to respond to calls to suspend himself, it would be a “reward for the left and the media for ganging up on him and for their undemocratic attempt at a coup.”

Both Education Minister Naftali Bennett (Jewish Home) and Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon (Kulanu) said this week that they stood by Netanyahu and would remain in the government for the time being, until the attorney general made a decision whether or not to proceed with indictments in any of the cases involving the prime minister.

Meanwhile, a poll conducted Monday by the Geocartographic Institute on behalf of Israel Hayom indicated that if a general election were held now, Likud would win 34 Knesset seats, an increase over the 30 it won in the 2015 election.

The poll also showed that Yesh Atid under Yair Lapid would secure 20 seats, compared to its current 11. This is down from the previous poll, which gave it 25. Habayit Hayehudi would win 14 seats, compared to eight in the current Knesset. The Zionist Union, which currently has 24 seats, would drop to 12; and the Joint Arab List, with 13 seats in the current Knesset, would likewise drop to 12. United Torah Judaism would increase from its current six seats to nine.

The results showed Yisrael Beytenu, headed by Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman, would win six seats, with seven for Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon’s Kulanu Party and six for Meretz. According to the poll, Shas would not pass the electoral threshold necessary to be part of the Knesset.

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