While Israel’s government remains in a period of unprecedented paralysis, embattled Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu remains entrenched in his position, despite being handed a series of criminal indictments that have been followed by calls from political opponents as well as longtime supporters for him to step aside and allow someone else to take over, either from the opposition or from his own ruling Likud Party.
Netanyahu has no plans to turn over the reins of Israel’s most complicated position to a less experienced leader, and two recent election cycles—while not giving Netanyahu a majority coalition—have still validated him as the Israeli politician with the strongest electoral backing.
Israeli law does not require a prime minister to step down while under indictment. The law does not even require his resignation if convicted, only after all appeals are exhausted. Yet the reason that Netanyahu will not step down isn’t simply that the law doesn’t force him to, but rather because he considers himself most qualified to lead the Jewish state in a period of immense challenges and strategic opportunities.
Chief among the challenges are what U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo recently referred to as the “malign activity” of a belligerent and unstable Iranian dictatorship that continues to threaten Israel while attempting to avoid a complete economic collapse due to a debilitating international sanctions regime. Opportunities include a strong, productive relationship with a friendly American president who has been, in Netanyahu’s estimation, the most pro-Israel president in U.S. history.
Since Israel’s Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit announced his intention to formally indict the prime minister, it has been business as usual for Netanyahu on both fronts. Israel has taken swift military action in Gaza and regarding Syria.
At an event in Ashkelon on Monday—a coastal city that has been the frequent target of rocket attacks launched from Gaza, less than 13 miles away—Netanyahu said, “I spoke yesterday with [U.S.] President [Donald] Trump, a very important conversation for Israel’s security. We talked about Iran, but we also talked at length about historic opportunities that stand before us in the coming months. Among them are [officially annexing] the Jordan Valley as the recognized eastern border of the State of Israel, as well as a defense treaty with the United States; things we could only dream of, but now we have the opportunity to realize them.”
To Netanyahu, the role of prime minister involves more than simply being the chief administrator of Israel’s parliamentary majority and commander-in-chief of the Israel Defense Forces, which are complicated enough. It also means being a global leader. In the past 10 years under his vision and stewardship, Israel has emerged as one of the world’s most influential nations; during that time, Netanyahu has stood toe to toe with world leaders, advancing Israel’s strategic diplomatic objectives and telling harsh truths when necessary to advance Israeli security needs.
Nor are his harsh truths reserved for foreign leaders. Netanyahu has a few for his domestic opponents and those souring on his continued rule—for instance, that he remains innocent until proven otherwise in a courtroom; that the law permits him to continue in office while under indictment; and that despite the best efforts of his political opponents, not one but two democratic election cycles have failed to replace him.
Earlier this week, Professor Yedidia Stern, vice president of the left-leaning Israel Democracy Institute, told JNS that “it is better for decisions regarding who the country’s leader will be to remain in the hands of the citizens and not the legal system.”
Therefore, he continued, if Netanyahu wins the next election, “I believe the president should not be held back from giving [him] the mandate to form the next government, even while under indictment.”
Stern said “the law does not address the specific question of someone running for prime minister while under indictment. Given that reality, it would be far-reaching judicial activism to establish that the president cannot give the mandate to form a government to someone who the citizens of the country vote for, assuming that they vote in high numbers for Netanyahu.”
It should be noted that IDI has repeatedly come out against Netanyahu’s continued premiership and even expressed its support for the formation of a minority government. Yet Stern’s remarks to JNS demonstrate that despite the strong desires of much of Israel’s legal, political and media establishments to push Netanyahu from office via a three-pronged attack, Israel is still a democracy whose mandate to govern ultimately lies with the public.
A week after writing an op-ed titled, “Netanyahu, it’s time to step down,” Jerusalem Post editor-in-chief Yaakov Katz followed up his assertion with a lament that since the indictments were announced just over a week ago, “it is as if there is no public outcry. People are barely taking to the streets and even if they do it is for an hour or so. … Instead of people pitching tents and demanding that Netanyahu step down, we see thousands of people coming out to support the prime minister. Almost no one is calling for the opposite—that he go home, leave office and be tried for his alleged crimes.”
Since before the initial elections were called nearly a year ago, the Israeli public has known about the investigations against Netanyahu through a steady stream of illegal leaks of evidence. As such, when Israelis went to the polls in April and again in September, the charges against Netanyahu were already on the table, even if not fully formalized.
And in those elections, more than 2 million Israelis came out to vote for a bloc of parties that maintain their support for Netanyahu—representing 55 seats out of 107 admittedly pro-Israel parliamentarians (and 13 self-proclaimed anti-Zionists). Meanwhile, the opposition has only mustered 44 seats, while Avigdor Lieberman’s eight-seat Yisrael Beiteinu Party sits on the fence and the Joint Arab List’s 13 parliamentarians sit on the side. That type of electoral statement will not encourage Netanyahu to opt for early retirement.
Likud will hold a primary in the coming weeks to confirm Netanyahu’s leadership of Israel’s ruling party. The Blue and White Party, led by Benny Gantz and Yair Lapid, is a conglomeration of three parties, two of which are brand-new and none of which have democratic primaries. Lieberman’s party similarly does not engage in primaries. Netanyahu’s chief opponents have selected themselves, while Netanyahu continues to renew his mandate directly from the electorate.
Despite bogus claims from Gantz and Lapid that Netanyahu’s continued leadership is leading Israel towards civil war, the prime minister has continuously asked for the backing of the public. As Israel moves headfirst towards an unprecedented third election in the spring, Netanyahu continues to stabilize the Jewish state against potential attacks on multiple fronts led by Iran, and he is working diplomatically to strengthen Israel’s legal rights to its territory during this window in history in terms of positive U.S. relations.
Netanyahu believes that he remains best-suited to lead Israel during this challenging period. Until the electorate tells him otherwise, he intends to stay put.
Alex Traiman is the managing director and Jerusalem Bureau Chief of Jewish News Syndicate.