Israel set for March Madness

Much in Israel's political impasse hinges upon the outcome of Netanyahu’s trial

 

Next month will have plenty of big days for Israel’s democracy. On March 2, Israel will have a general election. On March 8, the parties will begin arriving at the President’s Residence for consultations about who President Reuven Rivlin should confer the mandate to form the next government upon. On March 16, the newly elected members of the 23rd Knesset will be sworn in, and on the very next day, at the Jerusalem District Court, a serving Israeli prime minister will go on trial for the first time.

The only thing we can’t say for sure will take place in March – in fact, chances are right now it won’t – is the swearing-in of a new government. The polls have barely budged in the five months since the last election and neither Binyamin Netanyahu of Likud nor Benny Gantz of Blue and White is expected to have enough Members of the Knesset (MKs) to form a government. Unless the polls are drastically wrong or enough of a shift in public opinion takes place just before the election, more months of political deadlock beckon.

But the news that Netanyahu’s trial on charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust is set to begin on March 17 could change the political dynamics – probably not voting intentions, but the calculations of the MKs.

Politics may have been at a standstill for over a year now, but the legal proceedings against Netanyahu that were grinding forward excruciatingly slowly throughout the three long years of his multiple investigations and the Attorney-General’s deliberations have suddenly picked up speed. Since Netanyahu withdrew his request for parliamentary immunity in late January, the charges have been filed in court, a three-judge bench has been selected and a date has been set – much closer than anyone expected.

This will just be the arraignment, and long months of wrangling will ensue over disclosure, the necessity of Netanyahu to actually be present at all the sessions, and the beginning of the trial’s evidentiary stage.

But by summoning the sides for a date already in March, the presiding Judge, Rivka Friedman-Feldman, is proving true to form. She has a track record of tough sentencing on high-profile defendants, including Netanyahu’s predecessor, Ehud Olmert. She’s not about to wait around for anyone, not even a serving prime minister.

March 17 is about the earliest the trial’s starting date could have been set – immediately after the election and the day after the new Knesset’s swearing-in. This means that unless the election result is drastically different than what the polls are telling us, the parties will only have begun their wrangling and horse-trading over coalition permutations. It means that if Netanyahu is endorsed by a greater number of MKs than Gantz (because the Joint List of Arab parties might not endorse anyone), Rivlin will have an acute dilemma over whether he can award the mandate to a candidate about to be charged in court in a matter of days.

Without Bibi?

The March 17 date means that this time around Blue and White can’t even begin to entertain the prospect of a national-unity government in which Netanyahu serves first as prime minister, not even for a short period of a few months, as Rivlin proposed last September. That’s simply not an option for Gantz’s party anymore. The only national-unity government it can enter now is one where Netanyahu steps down and, at most, is promised the second half of the term, and only if he has been exonerated by then. Netanyahu isn’t going to do that willingly.

The most obvious conclusion from the early date of the Netanyahu trial seems to be that the grim prospects of a fourth election have grown. But that doesn’t take into account the exhaustion of the entire political system, including Netanyahu’s allies. 

Netanyahu’s staunch coalition partners, the ultra-Orthodox parties, absolutely can’t afford another election, which would mean that all legislation, and most crucially, a new budget, is suspended. The Haredi education system, and especially the stipends for yeshiva students, relies partly on funds that aren’t in the “base of the budget” but are authorised separately each year. Another election means that yeshiva money runs out by the end of July.

On the surface, Netanyahu’s partners have never been so close to him. In mid-February, the leaders of three parties currently in the governing coalition, Shas, United Torah Judaism and Yamina, signed yet another pledge that they will support only a Likud government under Netanyahu’s leadership. Shas has taken the unprecedented step of merging its get-out-the-vote operation with Likud.

This Haredi party’s support for Netanyahu is real, but it’s also an alibi. If, as expected, Netanyahu can’t form a government yet again after the election, Shas leader Aryeh Deri will finally be able to say to Netanyahu that “we did everything we could.” And it will finally be time to search for a compromise with Gantz, which could only mean Netanyahu leaving office. Deri wants to be the godfather of a national-unity government, rather than see Yisrael Beitenu’s Avigdor Lieberman find a way to help form a minority “secular” government. 

King of Likud

The court date isn’t the only thing that will make the aftermath of next month’s election different from the election in September. 

Another major development has been the Likud leadership primary. 

Netanyahu’s 72% landslide win over Gideon Sa’ar in December put paid to any speculation of an insurrection in his own party. This should add to the prospect of a fourth election, but not necessarily. Netanyahu’s undisputed mastery of Likud provides an asset to barter with in the national-unity talks.

Blue and White won’t sit in the government of a prime minister on trial, and by law, the only official role an indicted MK can have in government is prime minister. But there are other ways Netanyahu’s position as Likud leader can be acknowledged. For a start, he can divide up the cabinet posts with Gantz and decide which Likudniks to appoint to each portfolio the party receives. That way, he can continue to hold sway over them. He can be given a veto over the cabinet’s agenda and all government legislation, including the budget.

In many ways, this could be an ideal position for him during the long months of his trial – power over the government and no responsibility. When anything goes wrong, and things will, he can quietly brief journalists how he would be doing things differently.

And he’ll portray anything short of a prison sentence and a ruling that his actions contained “moral turpitude” – which would block him from running for office for seven years – as winning the case outright. His way back to power will be much shorter than if he relinquished the Likud leadership and resigned from the Knesset, as he regrets doing after losing the 1999 election. It took him 10 years to get back into office.

There’s a slim chance that March could turn out to be the month when Netanyahu is forced out. The court date makes that just a bit more likely.

Anshel Pfeffer is a senior correspondent and columnist for Haaretz and the Israel correspondent for The Economist. He is the author of Bibi: The Turbulent Life and Times of Benjamin Netanyahu (Basic Books, May 2018). © Haaretz (www.haaretz.com), reprinted by permission, all rights reserved.