Facing multiple police investigations and now also the enlistment by police of a state witness against him, on Aug. 9, an embattled Binyamin Netanyahu fronted 3,000 members of his Likud party who flocked from across the country to the Tel Aviv Fairgrounds. They heard him deliver a Trump-like diatribe against his perceived enemies.
“The Left and the media are one and the same,” he said, and “they are now joining an obsessive and unprecedented hunting expedition against me and my family, in order to stage a coup.” The plotters’ aim, he charged, is to force the legal system – “in disregard of justice or truth” – to indict the prime minister. “The media’s thought police,” he claimed, “is working fulltime, 24/7, and everyone must toe the line.”
The suspicions at stake had by then been old news – involving an allegedly steady and unpaid supply of expensive cigars and champagne from rich friends; an alleged deal with a publisher to influence his newspaper’s editorial stance; and allegedly irregular interference in the purchasing process for German submarines, possibly involving kickbacks for Netanyahu’s lawyer and others.
What was new was that the State Attorney had just signed a state witness deal with Netanyahu’s former chief of staff, American-born Likud activist Ari Harow. Moreover, while requesting that a magistrates court impose a gag order on the terms of the deal with Harow, Israeli Police said the deal involves the investigations about the gifts and the discussion with the publisher, and that the suspicions involve bribery, fraud and breach of trust.
The gag application did not mention Netanyahu by name, and the court indeed imposed the gag explaining that publicity might damage the investigation. However, since it cited the famous names of the probes into the PM’s conduct – “File 1000” and “File 2000” – it was obvious that Netanyahu is a suspect, and that the terms of the state witness deal place him in hot water.
State witnesses are not usually enlisted by the prosecution unless it thinks the evidence they bring is solid, and that the price of easing charges against the witness will be worth less than the evidence he delivers.
Harow apparently provides such value, having been in the thick of Netanyahu’s operation, and witnessed and also managed some of his interactions with foreign donors. Most crucially, Harow reportedly has recordings of Netanyahu’s conversations with Arnon Mozes, the publisher of the newspaper Yediot Aharonot.
Harow, for his part, needs the deal because he faces indictment for having secretly continued to operate his private political consultancy after becoming Netanyahu’s chief of staff in 2014.
This, then, is the basis for an impression among legal pundits that an indictment against Netanyahu is in the making – even though no one seems to know what exact evidence police already have, or hope to obtain, from their newly recruited witness.
Yet the legal process is expected to be slow, and an indictment, should one materialise, will take at least a year to arrive, since both police and the Attorney-General – who decides whether to press charges against public figures – will have to be certain that the evidence they can assemble will generate a conviction before they drag a sitting prime minister to court.
Moreover, even an indictment will not necessarily trigger a resignation.
Israeli law requires a minister’s resignation upon indictment, but not a prime minister’s.
The rationale for this is that a prime minister’s resignation, unlike that of any other cabinet member’s, automatically results in the government’s dissolution, which means that if a PM resigns because of an indictment, then the judiciary has effectively unseated the executive, in contradiction to the separation of powers.
Netanyahu’s confidants say that he does not intend to resign even if he is indicted. That means that, in any event, at this point he can be expected to remain in office for considerably longer than a year – indeed perhaps all the way to the next general election, currently scheduled for November 2019.
Then again, a resignation might result from courtroom dynamics and media commotion that generate public pressure that will be beyond Netanyahu’s control well before then.
In the case of Netanyahu’s predecessor, Ehud Olmert, the resignation came well ahead of any indictments, after his main coalition ally, Labor, said a prime minister who needs to deal with challenges as daunting as Israel’s cannot spend his time focused on his personal legal problems.
Netanyahu’s allies, however, are backing him for now. None of his coalition partners have even hinted at jumping ship, and the closest any of them came to joining the opposition’s predictable calls for his resignation was Kulanu leader and Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon’s noncommittal quip that “cigars stink.”
Moreover, even if Netanyahu does resign at some point, his coalition can be expected to remain intact, at least initially, since all the six parties in the governing coalition have reason to fear a backlash from the conservative side of the electorate for appearing to have betrayed Netanyahu.
Past Israeli precedents leave no doubt that a conviction, even of the most senior pubic figures, is ultimately accepted by practically all walks of society. Until such a conviction materialises, however, both the allegations’ validity and the legal process surrounding them can unsettle many on both sides of the political divide. That is indeed what is happening now.
Netanyahu’s political opponents, led by new Labor leader Avi Gabbay, feel that what has so far transpired demands his departure. “I call on the heads of the coalition factions,” he told anti-corruption demonstrators, “take a decision and dismantle the government.”
The location of the demonstration Gabbay addressed has been an issue of controversy in its own right. It took place on the suburban sidewalk outside the home of Attorney-General Avihai Mandleblit, among the upper middle-class apartment buildings of Kfar Ganim north of Tel Aviv.
After sparking counter-protests from the right, local neighbours appealed to the High Court of Justice, which ordered the protesters to obtain a police licence due to both the unusual location of their demonstration and the growing size of the weekly protests.
Regardless of its challenge to public order in a residential area, the protesters’ choice of location is meant to imply that the prosecution is dragging its feet, and that it is doing so because of Mandelblit, who was previously Netanyahu’s cabinet secretary, and also owes him his appointment to his current position.
Yet Mandelblit’s management of the probes has also been attacked from the right, where some feel the state witness deal he approved might ultimately prove fatal for Netanyahu.
In fact, knowledgeable legal and political pundits from all backgrounds do not doubt Mandelblit’s impartiality and professionalism, and cite the state witness deal as proof that his acquaintance with Netanyahu has not affected his judgment.
Meanwhile, Netanyahu’s circle charge that by demonstrating outside the A-G’s home, politicians like Gabbay have cast doubts on the prosecution’s impartiality and also potentially obstructed its work.
Still, Netanyahu’s strategy, as it emerged from his speech, was to portray himself as the victim of the “left”, which for some of his support base includes the court system and the prosecution.
Many commentators therefore noted that the police probe is being led by Netanyahu-appointee Israel Police Chief Inspector-General Roni Alsheikh, and that the state witness deal was approved by Mandelblit, who is also Netanyahu’s appointee.
Beyond these legal, public and political dynamics, looms the potential end of an era.
Netanyahu’s current premiership enters its tenth year next February. Coupled with his previous term in 1996-99, and considering that he will turn 68 next October, some wonder whether Netanyahu would want a fourth consecutive run for the premiership, even if the legal skies above him were to clear.
Just where all this leads is anyone’s guess, but if Netanyahu does leave prematurely, a successor would need to be produced immediately, a process that will happen in two installments – one parliamentary, the other partisan.
In the Knesset, the Likud would need to select one of its current lawmakers as its prime-ministerial candidate, since the premier must be a sitting lawmaker.
This candidate would then need to be elected by the Knesset, meaning that the candidate would need to be agreeable to the rest of the current coalition. After having thus initially installed a successor for Netanyahu, Likud would hold a primary election in which it would elect its candidate for the approaching general election.
Politically, many expect this process would initially crown current Transport Minister Yisrael Katz as Netanyahu’s immediate successor.
Katz, who turns 62 in September, has been Transport Minister for more than eight years, and during his tenure has won near universal praise as an administrator for building highways and railways while leading a transport revolution. At the same time, he wields considerable political power as Chairman of the Likud Secretariat.
Katz might be challenged by Internal Security Minister Gilad Erdan, 46, and Regional Cooperation Minister Tzahi Hanegbi, 60. Yet for now, Katz is seen as a stronger candidate than these or any other challengers among current Likud lawmakers.
However, in a primary election he might face former Education Minister Gideon Sa’ar, 50, another leading Likud figure. Sa’ar took a break from politics three years ago, and is therefore not in the current Knesset, but recently announced his return to politics. Sa’ar is popular and might seem a fresher and younger choice than Katz to many Likud members.
Yet the bigger challenge to Netanyahu’s successor as leader of the Likud would come from outside the party. The Centre-Left, led by Labor’s Avi Gabbay; the Centre, led by Yesh Atid’s Yair Lapid; and the Center-Right, which in addition to Kulanu’s Moshe Kahlon will also feature former defence minister Moshe Ya’alon, might all coalesce into a bloc that would push the Likud into opposition.
Obviously, for any of this to happen, Netanyahu must first depart, one way or another. Until then, the Netanyahu era will continue unfolding.