(December 25, 2018 / JNS) On Monday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the heads of the coalition parties decided to call an early election, citing the divisive military conscription legislation as the impetus.
But it is quite clear to all: The snap elections are less about the legislation and more about the impending criminal indictments awaiting Netanyahu.
The elections were not called early because of the stubborn demands made by the ultra-Orthodox Party United Torah Judaism. They were called early because of the stubborn demands made by State Attorney Shai Nitzan and prosecutor Liat Ben-Ari. Netanyahu will be asking the public to put its faith in him despite the corruption indictments and the legal proceedings against him.
Meanwhile, the left has an opportunity to emerge from its current miserable state and rehabilitate itself. But the way things are going, it appears that the left will botch this chance, just as it has at every turn in the past.
The early signs were clear: The sudden decision to convene the legislation committee after months of complete inactivity, one day after it was leaked that the prosecution was leaning towards indicting Netanyahu. The assessment is that if Netanyahu really wanted to overcome the coalition crisis surrounding the military draft issue, he could. He could overcome any crisis, and he could get a draft law passed. It did not have to paralyze the coalition. The fact is, he didn’t even try.
Another indication was the fact that Netanyahu, who as well as being prime minister is currently serving as defense, foreign, health, religious services and immigrant absorption minister, declined to name an immigration minister this week, opting instead to appoint Tourism Minister Yariv Levin as acting immigrant absorption minister, bypassing the need for Knesset approval.
The date that has been set for the early elections, April 9, 2019, is another clue. It would have made much more sense for Netanyahu to put off elections until after May, because of the many official ceremonies and events then (Memorial Day for Fallen Soldiers, Independence Day and others). The decision to hold elections in April teaches us that it is the criminal investigations’ timeline that is setting the pace, not anything else.
The prime minister really wanted to keep the coalition intact for the full term, which ends next November. In July, Netanyahu would have surpassed Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion’s record of 4,872 days as prime minister. Breaking this record really appealed to Netanyahu, and to achieve it he was ready to go far to keep his floundering 61-member coalition intact. He was determined to pass the conscription law and surmount any other hurdles that might have come along.
But for many months now, a different timeline has been progressing alongside the political one—the timeline of the police investigations and criminal suspicions against the prime minister. It was a matter of time before these parallel timelines collided, and last week that happened. It was announced that the evidence against the prime minister had been transferred in full from the State Attorney’s Office to the Attorney General’s Office, along with a recommendation to file two or three indictments against him for bribery. This announcement made it clear to Netanyahu that the time for maneuvering had ended. Now he is fighting for his life, not just politically.
The prime minister is convinced that ultimately he will be cleared of all charges. He had believed that Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit would make things easy for him and decline to indict him.
But now, with massive pressure being exerted on the attorney general to file indictments, coupled with the prosecution’s clear stance and the unflattering media reports, Netanyahu is beginning to understand that Mendelblit may not save him. An actual indictment is closer than ever, and Netanyahu feels a need to take the necessary steps.
In the meantime, it seems Netanyahu is not even considering the option of quitting politics and trying to strike a plea deal with the authorities to avoid trial. Netanyahu will seek re-election and try to avoid prosecution in another way. A vote of confidence from the public could be the exact solution he needs. If he wins the election, he will have been fully acquitted by the public and Mendelblit will have a very hard time establishing a case against him. Mendelblit will have to be 100 percent convinced that he can secure a conviction, because otherwise he will be the man who singlehandedly overthrew a just-elected prime minister.
Another scenario would see Netanyahu use his position as the elected prime minister to declare that he plans to remain in office even if an indictment is filed against him. If this is the route he chooses, he will be the first prime minister to preside over cabinet meetings on Sundays and appear in court on Mondays. It would be surreal, but doable.
Then there are the contenders who aspire to succeed Netanyahu. The left has received an opportunity to deal a blow to Netanyahu, but it will only succeed if it manages to come together and present a united front, which, as of now, it is far from achieving. There have been many initiatives and much talk but so far none of the party leaders on the left have shown any willingness to relinquish the top spot, and that is where every initiative gets stuck.
Meanwhile, Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid is launching an election campaign on the heels of a wild zigzag on the conscription legislation (initially supporting the bill but then making a surprise announcement that he would vote against it).
But it appears that the worst is still ahead, as he contends against former Israel Defense Forces’ Chief of Staff Benny Gantz, who recently announced his entry into politics to impressive poll showings.
Labor leader Avi Gabbay is heading into the election beaten and humiliated, with abysmal poll numbers. Judging by the latest surveys, barring any surprises, his standing after the election will be even worse. All these factors suggest that the left-wing camp is either on the brink of crashing and burning like never before, or, alternatively, undergoing the kind of drama that will unite its ranks and yield surprising results.
In the coming days and weeks, we are going to see a lot of spin, commentary and speculation. Before an election is the time when politicians generally look out for number one first and for the public second. But by now, it is abundantly clear that whatever the government has failed to do over the last four years will likely never be done.
Mati Tuchfeld writes for Israel Hayom.