(February 14, 2018 / JNS) Lack of faith in institutions, electoral math and the absence of viable alternatives mean that Benjamin Netanyahu is going to remain prime minister for some time yet.
Most of the Israeli premier’s critics assumed that if the corruption charges that had been hurled against him in recent years stuck, he was finished. Now that the Israeli police have formally recommended that he be indicted on two separate accusations, they are cheering what seems like his imminent demise.
But as dismal as his situation seems, Netanyahu’s vow to stay in office isn’t the bravado of a desperate man. The betting here is not only that he will still be prime minister a year from now, but that he may be infuriating his foes from his current position for much longer than that.
How is that possible?
The answer lies in the law, the divisive nature of Israeli politics and electoral math.
The first reason is the simplest. Though a recommendation from the police that he be indicted sounds awful, it is meaningless unless it is followed by indictments.
The only person who can authorize them is Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit, who now holds the future of the country in his hands. Mendelblit is expected to take months before making a decision, meaning it is entirely possible that the spring will pass with Netanyahu’s fate still hanging in the balance.
The chorus of Netanyahu critics in the Israeli media believes that if Mendelblit is as honest as he seems, indictments must follow. They may be right, but it’s also true, as I noted last week, that there is less to the accusations than meets the eye.
The charge that wealthy supporters bribed him with 1 million shekels worth of cigars and champagne, and got favors in return, looks sleazy. But the loose connection between the favors and the gifts is more about bad optics than anything that could stand up in court. In the absence of direct proof of a quid pro quo arrangement, the gifts appear unseemly but hardly criminal. American observers should also note that even if what the police say was true, what Netanyahu did would not be illegal in the United States.
As for the charge relating to Netanyahu’s bizarre talks with a newspaper publisher, the claim that the discussion was illegal is risible. While Netanyahu’s taped comments, in which he promised to undermine Israel Hayom—a pro-Netanyahu newspaper owned by casino owner (and JNS donor) Sheldon Adelson—in exchange for a cease-fire from the highly critical Arnon Mozes and his Yediot Ahronot was a betrayal of a friend. The deal never happened and wouldn’t have been illegal anyway.
That means it is possible that Mendelblit will look at what is, at best, a shaky case on the bribes and a transparently weak one on the newspapers, and decide that there is no way either will ever bring a conviction. And so, he’ll refuse to indict.
But whether he does or not, the arbitrary reasoning in which unseemly behavior is being treated as criminal is part of the reason why Netanyahu believes his party will stand by him come what may.
One can argue that the right thing to do would be for Netanyahu to step down if he were indicted, even if the law would allow him to stay in office until he was actually convicted. But since Netanyahu and many of his supporters question the legitimacy of the prosecution, it’s almost certain that he will choose to fight rather than resign.
As is the case in the United States—where a bifurcated political culture has led to a situation where liberals and conservatives not only don’t read, listen to or watch the same media, but also don’t believe anything said by the opposing camp—the same is true in Israel. Likudniks believe, with good reason, that the media and much of the country’s intellectual, financial, legal and media establishments are hopelessly biased against Netanyahu and anyone from the right. Even if the case against the prime minister was stronger than the one assembled by the police, it’s entirely possible that the Likud wouldn’t depose the prime minister.
That’s why none of the three most likely potential successors to Netanyahu within the Likud—Yisrael Katz, Gilad Erdan and Gideon Sa’ar—will make a move against him until the moment he waves the white flag and resigns, assuming that ever happens (or that the party would ever accept a member of that trio as its leader). The same goes for the trio of right-wing coalition partners who may wish to someday lead the Likud or whatever party emerges to lead the nationalist camp after Netanyahu: Naftali Bennett, Avigdor Lieberman and Moshe Kahlon.
At the same time, the opposition to the Likud also remains weak. There is no general clamor for Yesh Atid’s Yair Lapid or the Zionist Union/Labor’s Avi Gabbay to succeed Netanyahu. Indeed, polls taken following the police report show that if elections were held now, the same center-right coalition led by Netanyahu would prevail.
That means it’s entirely possible that Netanyahu will call for elections to be moved up (his current term won’t expire until the end of 2019) to sometime this year. His expectation would be that he’d win despite the police charges, and then—armed with the imprimatur of an election victory—be able to stay in office, even if Mendelblit indicted him, until the conclusion of a trial that would undoubtedly take years.
And so, Israel’s already nasty political culture will get even nastier in the coming months and years. But the notion that it will be impossible for Netanyahu to govern isn’t correct. As Americans have learned in the last year as President Trump had to cope with the burden of the Mueller probe into Russian collusion, democracy can function even under such difficult circumstances.
There is a chance, of course, that it won’t end well for Netanyahu. But for good or for ill, the end of his time as prime minister seems to be nowhere in sight.
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS — the Jewish News Syndicate. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.