The Indictment of Netanyahu Could Break Political Stalemate

The Israeli prime minister’s political career seems to be on the ropes after the country’s Chief Justice indicted him with charges of fraud, bribery and breach of trust. It is the first time in the history of the Jewish state that a sitting prime minister has been charged with crime. Despite his indictment, Netanyahu has vowed to stay put instead accusing the Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit and the police of plotting to remove him from office.

“A day in which the Attorney General decides to serve an indictment against a seated prime minister for serious crimes of corrupt governance is a heavy and sad day for the Israeli public and me personally,” said Netanyahu. On his part, the Attorney General Mandelbeit has denied that his actions were politically motivated, insisting that he was only carrying out duties bestowed on him by his office.

The Attorney General had delayed announcing Netanyahu’s indictment until Benjamin Gantz failed to form a government. This was to avoid accusations of interfering in the political process. However, his decision comes at a critical time when the country is experiencing an intense political turmoil that has seen the main political parties fail to form a government after a closely contested election.

The charges now makes it difficult for Netanyahu to form a government before or after the election. Israel’s President Reuven Rivlin had initially suggested a compromise plan of forming a government of National Unity, composed of Likud and the Blue and White parties. Under his plan, which was also supported by Avigdor Lieberman of Our Home Party, Netanyahu of Likud was to serve as Prime Minister with Benny Grantz of Blue and Whites serving as his deputy.

The plan further suggested that in case, Netanyahu was indicted, Gantz was to take over until the trial was completed. But the possibility of a unity government are now off the table as Gantz has insisted that he will never form a coalition government with a prime minister who is facing criminal charges. This was evident from his statement in which he condemned Netanyahu for refusing to resign saying that the “Prime Minister has no public or moral mandate to make fateful decisions for the state of Israel.”

Similar views were echoed by lawmaker Tamar Zandberg of the left-wing Democratic Union who said, “The Prime Minister cannot serve even one more day. He must resign this very evening. He has no mandate to run the state. If he does not do this, no one should agree to sit in his government or his party. He should not run for election and cannot receive a mandate to form a government. He must leave public life immediately,”

One key fact is that Netanyahu is a leading protagonist and a hardliner in the current political deadlock. Therefore loosening his grip on power would soften up the current political impasse, leading to a breakthrough in the formation of a unity government.

Gantz has already expressed his willingness to form a government with any other leader from the Likud party but not Netanyahu. Being one of the main political figures, any compromise plan without Netanyahu would benefit him to a great extent.

But is there any likelihood of Netanyahu loosening his grip on power especially after he defiantly refused to resign? The most probable chances would be through legal and political means.

Removing him as the leader of the Likud Party would, without doubt, disqualify him from leading any government. This could involve his party members voting him out of office through primaries, or defecting to Gantz’s side to form a government of national unity. Already some disgruntled members have been calling for party primaries to elect new leaders. Just hours before the indictment Gideon Sa’ar, the second senior-most leader in Likud had declared his readiness to challenge Netanyahu and form a government.

But as the Likud party leader, Netanyahu wields great influence and loyalty among members and removing him from office would be a tall order. Furthermore, as chairman, he has the final say on when the primaries should be held.

Legal channels could involve citizens petitioning the High Court to prohibit Netanyahu from getting a new mandate to form a government due to the indictment. However, one party official expressed his scepticism that a court would prevent Netanyahu from heading under indictment charges “because the law doesn’t touch on premiership status in an interim government.”

A Supreme Court Ruling of 1993 that directed the then Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin to fire indicted ministers could also offer good legal grounds to get rid of Netanyahu. Under Section 18 of Israel Basic Law, the prime minister can only resign after a conviction and not during the indictment. However using the 1993, the High Court can argue that if indicted ministers were forced to resign, the same should be applied to the prime minister, who in this case is Netanyahu.

This would be backed with the argument that Netanyahu’s refusal to resign after being indicted and amid legal proceedings would seriously affect his ability to carry out his public duties as prime minister. However, some legal experts would argue that there’s a difference between a prime minister and a minister, as the former is not appointed but elected.

Netanyahu is desperate to remain in office to fight the charges, since as prime minister he is not required to resign in case of criminal charges. What he is likely to do is use his powers as prime minister to request immunity from parliament. This has to be done within 30 days after the indictment according to the laws.

In case he doesn’t submit the request, the parliament’s House Committee would convene to deliberate on whether he should be granted one. The House Committee’s final decision would then be put to vote in parliament. The only limitation to this is that no new House Committee has been appointed since April this year due to the political deadlock that preceded the elections. This means that the question of whether Netanyahu should be granted immunity cannot be discussed in parliament until a new committee is appointed.

This also means that that the indictment against him cannot be filed, and the court wouldn’t be able to start the trial. According to HAARETZ, parliament could appoint a House Committee specifically to consider Netanyahu’s request for immunity.

But even if parliament decides to grant him immunity, Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit or any other citizen could appeal the decision to the High Court which could end up overturning the decision. Similarly, Netanyahu can also appeal to the High Court if parliament rejects his request for immunity.

What is evident from all this is that Netanyahu’s morality as a leader is in doubt. As prime minister he is facing enormous political and legal hurdles.  This could embolden and influence his rivals both in the Likud and the opposition party to gang up and form a coalition government thus breaking the current political deadlock.