“There won’t be anything, because there wasn’t anything,” he said time and again. But in a bombshell intervention last week, Benjamin Netanyahu’s hand-picked attorney general begged to differ. Indicted on charges of bribery, fraud, and breach of trust, Israel’s longest-serving premier is fighting for his political life. And fight he will – despite mounting calls for his resignation to clear the nation’s chronic electoral impasse, ‘Bibi’ has sworn to battle on.
Thursday’s shock announcement has inflamed the political crisis gripping Israel. For months the country has been without a government, with two successive elections failing to break the deadlock. Benny Gantz, Netanyahu’s main rival, had hoped his centrist Blue and White party might form the elusive majority – but he too conceded defeat last week. Israel’s Knesset parliament now has three weeks to find a way forward, lest voters return to the polls for a third time.
Netanyahu’s indictment – the first against a sitting Israeli prime minister – has only fanned the political flames. But he’s in no mood to back down. Denying all allegations in a blistering response video, Bibi attacked the judiciary’s apparent political motivations, accusing judges of an “attempted coup”. The charges range from more minor infractions – receiving luxury gifts from wealthy individuals – to the utmost serious: bribery in return for favourable media coverage.
Yet, despite the gravity of the indictment, Netanyahu faces no legal obligation to step down, and could, in theory, still strive to form a government over the next 21 days. He’s failed in that endeavour twice already, and now facing criminal prosecution, the 70-year-old’s coalition-building credibility is frailer than ever. Public opinion seems to be turning against the prime minister too, with 56% of Israelis believing he must now resign.
But among the Likud party faithful, Netanyahu’s unassailable stature appears intact. His strengths in security and economic policy outweigh any allegations of malfeasance, most on Israel’s Right will reason. One government minister, Amir Ohana, expressed his pride in all Likud parliamentarians for standing by their man – “except for two,” he added pointedly.
Gideon Sa’ar is doubtless one of these. A rising star in the party, the 52-year-old has made no secret of his lofty ambitions, calling on Netanyahu to face him in a leadership contest (a challenge the prime minister has, in principle, acceded to). Untarnished by decades in office, Sa’ar believes he can offer Likud lawmakers what Bibi demonstrably cannot: a reasonable chance at bridging the political divide and forming a government.
Even if Sa’ar were to lose a primary race, his card would be marked for the future, experts believe. “He is calculating that a strong showing would allow him to position himself as the natural successor to lead the party,” says Natan Sachs of The Brookings Institution, a research group.
But with Netanyahu’s grip on power unyielding, succession may be years away. Fighting yet another election seems an extraordinary enterprise – even without the baggage of a serious indictment. But the other option, bowing out, is not in Bibi’s playbook. He wants to prove that the system is flawed, that Israel’s judicial institutions have overstepped the mark. Doing so will involve an ugly, internecine battle; but so be it.
And he has another more practical reason to fight on: the prospect of immunity. As prime minister, he is significantly more likely to receive legal protection from the Knesset during his prosecution. Given the 10 year sentence he faces if found guilty, that is a lifeline Netanyahu cannot afford to lose.
But the charges against him will be easy game for Gantz and others should a third election be called. And even if Netanyahu triumphed in another public poll, it remains unclear whether he could take office while on trial. Who takes up the mantle of assembling a government is in the gift of President Reuven Rivlin, who could well baulk at selecting a suspected criminal. Bibi would, of course, challenge such a ruling, ultimately pushing the final decision to the courts – setting the stage for an even greater constitutional showdown.
So, all told, Israel’s political future is far from clear. Netanyahu will fight on, that’s for certain, but the forces of opposition are amassing.