(February 22, 2018 / Israel Hayom/Exclusive to JNS) As both ongoing and newly launched investigations involving Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu continue to agitate the political sphere, it is becoming increasingly likely that he will announce early elections, and that his government will not complete a full four-year term, according to those in Israeli political circles.
The coalition partners, particularly Habayit Hayehudi leader Naftali Bennett and Kulanu leader Moshe Kahlon, have made it clear that the investigations, including the recent development of former Ministry of Communications Director-General Shlomo Filber—one of the prime minister’s closest associates—turning state’s witness in Case 4000, will not change anything.
Case 4000 centers on the potentially illicit dealings and conflict of interest involving Israeli telecom corporation Bezeq and the Walla news website, which Bezeq owns. The police allege that Bezeq’s controlling shareholder Shaul Elovitch ensured positive coverage of the Netanyahu family by Walla in exchange for the prime minister promoting government regulations worth hundreds of millions of dollars to the company.
Case 4000 comes on the heels of three other corruption cases involving the prime minister: Case 1000, which centers on gifts Netanyahu allegedly received from Hollywood producer Arnon Milchan and Australian billionaire James Packer; Case 2000, which focuses on an illicit deal Netanyahu allegedly tried to strike with Yediot Ahronot publisher Arnon Mozes to ensure positive coverage; and Case 3000, which revolves around an alleged conflict of interest with regard to the 2016 procurement of three German submarines. Case 3000 does not implicate Netanyahu directly, but rather his attorney and cousin, David Shimron.
Bennett and Kahlon reiterated on Wednesday that they do not plan to make any decisions regarding their parties’ future in the coalition until Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit announces a decision on whether or not to indict Netanyahu.
Still, it doesn’t seem a stretch that one of the parties will succumb to public pressure and quit the coalition. This is the worst possible scenario for Netanyahu; he stands to lose control of the situation if one of Likud’s partners bolts or, alternately, threatens to topple the government unless another Likud member replaces Netanyahu as its leader.
Until now, Netanyahu has been able to stay ahead of the political game by maintaining the power to call early elections. He wielded this power at his convenience, which usually did not suit other parties, and only after a calculated and meticulous assessment of the situation.
If Netanyahu is forced to call early elections, he may lose this advantage, especially the ability to control events and manage them as he wishes.
This may be the worst-case scenario, but it is also, at least for now, the most far-fetched. Likud’s coalition partners have no interest in elections at this time, each for its own reasons. What they do have in common is their respective electorates’ desire to see Netanyahu retain his position as prime minister. Therefore, exiting the coalition prematurely could backfire.
Another reason that the coalition partners are reluctant to leave the government lies with recent polls that show Likud is still going strong. The fact that the polls predict that toppling the current government and seeking re-election would still see Netanyahu lead the next government is more than enough to give the parties’ leaders pause.
In a different possible scenario, Netanyahu could decide to resign from politics. While this more drastic option is not on the table at this time, according to sources close to the prime minister, it could become a reality should Netanyahu’s legal predicament worsen.
A third possibility could see Netanyahu call early elections. The advantage of this course of action is that it will allow Netanyahu to control events, despite the inherent, calculated risk of seeking re-election, as no one really knows how such early elections will end.
Winning the election will prove Netanyahu’s claim that the public has faith in his ability to govern; therefore, demanding that he step down or suspend himself pending the attorney general’s decision is irrelevant.
Seeking re-election, however, comes with a major disadvantage—namely, that it will not resolve a situation in which he may face criminal charges several months or a year into his next term. While Israeli law does not mandate prime ministers to suspend themselves or resign while facing criminal proceedings, it’s clear that an indicted premier cannot remain in office.
The fourth scenario could see Netanyahu bide his time. This seems to be his preferred course of action, as it will allow him to observe how the legal process evolves before making a decision on whether or not to call early elections.
Netanyahu does not believe Mendelblit will indict him, which is why he prefers the current status quo.
But what if Netanyahu is re-elected and then indicted? This could go one of two ways: If Netanyahu faces minor charges that do not carry moral turpitude, he will probably be able to pressure Mendelblit into signing a plea bargain that would allow him to remain in office. But if he faces serious charges, such as bribery, he’ll have no choice but to resign.