After the Likud secured a stunning 13-seat electoral margin over the second-largest party, Yesh Atid, an embattled Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has received the official mandate to form a new government, following the fourth election in less than two years. Yet similar to the first three contests, his ability to forge a parliamentary majority coalition remains in doubt.
On Monday, representatives from each of the 13 parties that entered Knesset met with President Reuven Rivlin to recommend their preferred candidate for prime minister. Netanyahu received 52 recommendations from his committed right-wing and religious partners. The current head of the opposition, Yair Lapid of Yesh Atid, received 45 recommendations from each of the country’s center-left and far-left parties.
Naftali Bennett received seven recommendations—all from his own right-wing Yamina Party. The right-wing New Hope Party led by former Netanyahu ally Gideon Sa’ar, as well as two Arab parties, which have never joined any coalition government right or left, opted not to recommend any candidate.
Also on Monday, just as livestreamed consultations at the president’s office were underway, Netanyahu was pictured sitting for a brief period in the back of a courtroom, ahead of the first day of testimony in one of three cases in which he is charged with bribery and breach of trust. (He was only required to attend the opening statement.)
The side-by-side events—rabid media coverage of Netanyahu’s trial, plus a fourth rapid-fire election with no clear path towards a 61-Knesset member majority—represent both a surreal and a low moment in Israeli political history.
Hourly news reports alternated the scorecard of the various recommendations by party representatives, followed by snippets of testimony from Ilan Yeshua, former CEO of the Walla! news site. Yeshua’s testimony detailed how Netanyahu and his advisers repeatedly strong-armed the nature of Walla! news coverage about himself and his family members, as well as that of his political rivals. In return, Netanyahu advanced regulations that directly benefited Walla! owner Shaul Elovitch, another defendant in the case.
The testimony isn’t pretty and the media is seizing the opportunity to broadcast the negative soundbites. Yet that doesn’t necessarily make any of the actions illegal.
A legal memorandum authored by famed U.S. attorney Nathan Lewin, signed by a team of lawyers including Alan Dershowitz, and submitted to Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit ahead of his decision to indict Netanyahu, warned: “If the police and prosecutors are empowered to probe the mixed motives of journalists and politicians, they can exercise arbitrary control over essential institutions of democracy.”
The Lewin memo extensively cites a 2012 report by the United Kingdom’s Lord Justice Leveson, titled “Inquiry Into the Culture, Practices and Ethics of the Press,” which details numerous historical interactions between some of the world’s most influential media moguls, including Rupert Murdoch, William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer; and political counterparts, including British Prime Ministers Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair, Australian Prime Minister Bob Hawke and others. The memo noted that “media empires … routinely exchange favorable coverage for beneficial acts,” yet contended that “there has never been a single case in the democratic world in which a public figure was prosecuted, let alone convicted, of the ‘crime’ of receiving a requested ‘bribe’ of favorable publicity.”
Were Netanyahu to be convicted, he would be the first such politician in any democratic country to be found guilty of practices that are standard in the relationships between state leaders and media owners since the advent of politics and a free press.
The details of Yeshua’s testimony are furthering souring those voters who have had enough of Netanyahu, as well as political rivals who are intent on replacing Israel’s longest-serving prime minister. Much of the country believe that Netanyahu has overstayed his welcome after 12 consecutive years on Balfour Street.
‘A witch hunt’
Still, Netanyahu’s considerable number of supporters remains committed. Immediately following the first day of testimony, Netanyahu asserted in a televised address that the unprecedented charges represent an attempted coup by the prosecution and the media, and that the means of the investigation were illegal.
“It’s a witch hunt. They didn’t investigate a crime, they didn’t look for a crime; they hunted for a man, they hunted me,” he said.
Israeli law explicitly states that a prime minister may continue to serve in his role while under trial and even following a guilty verdict until all appeals have been exhausted. Until then, it is only the voters that can remove a prime minister from office.
Throughout the successive election campaigns, sealed evidence was continuously leaked to the press, while announcements from prosecutors were timed repeatedly to influence voters ahead of polls. The current witness testimony may ultimately factor into Netanyahu’s ability to form a government.
Yet four times in a row, the voters have spoken. Among a divided electorate, the largest block by far has consecutively sent the message that Netanyahu remains the most fitting candidate to serve as prime minister. Right-wing parties which are ideologically aligned with Likud total 65 seats. And while more than 61 Knesset members across the spectrum would like to see Netanyahu replaced, opponents have been repeatedly unable to form a government due to their own disparate ideological and political agendas.
Following the consultations with party leaders, Rivlin stated his belief that no candidate would be likely to form a coalition, then reluctantly and unceremoniously passed the mandate to Netanyahu via a messenger.
Now, the heads of the 11 small parties—each between six and nine seats apiece—believe that they hold the mandate of “kingmaker,” or at least be the ones who will ultimately determine who will emerge as prime minister. In particular, Naftali Bennett is angling to become prime minister, as part of a rotation with Netanyahu—or with opposition leader Lapid—in return for his support. Yet no one kingmaker, including Bennett, holds all the cards.
Netanyahu now has the task of convincing multiple kingmakers to crown him once again. Should he convince Bennett, a former ally who has not ruled out sitting under Netanyahu, to join a right-wing government, he will be just two seats short and will try to recruit defectors from other parties. Sa’ar, another former ally who broke off from Likud with several colleagues to form New Hope, could together with Bennett give Netanyahu 65 seats and a stable right-wing government.
Members of the left are simultaneously trying to recruit Bennett and Sa’ar to form a “government of change.” Lapid, whose left-wing Yesh Atid received 17 seats, is believed to have offered Bennett the first seat in a prime-ministerial rotation arrangement should he break ranks with the right. Meanwhile, Bennett has pledged not to sit in a government led by Lapid.
Simultaneously, some members of the opposition are hoping that they may be able to work together even without a formal coalition to advance legislation that would retroactively invalidate Netanyahu from forming a government.
Following the third election, Netanyahu fought off a similar parliamentary putsch attempt and ultimately cracked his opposition, forming a unity alignment with then-challenger Benny Gantz and half of his Blue and White Party.
Despite a parliament, a justice system, and most media that all want his tenure to end, Netanyahu remains the strongest player in the field. His party is the largest by far—his block of supporters is larger than any other, and the mandate to form a government is officially his. Whether he will succeed is anyone’s guess. Should he fail, a fifth election may be on the horizon.
Throughout it all, for the fourth time in two years, it’s only the voters who want Netanyahu in the top job.
Alex Traiman is managing director and Jerusalem bureau chief of Jewish News Syndicate.