In an unprecedented move to trigger national elections for the third time in less than a year, Israel's Knesset dissolved itself on Dec. 11 last year. It later set an election date for March 2 while offering vague prospects for ensuring stability. On top of the bungling national elections, the past year was marked by three indictments against Benjamin Netanyahu, the country's longest-serving prime minister. This alone has made the ongoing turmoil worse.
Unprecedented and unparalleled, the developments say a lot about Israel's stability while raising a key question about whether indicted Netanyahu can form a government if his Likud party wins the March elections. "We certainly have a problem that is between law and morality, between values and the will of the people, and these are things to be seriously considered," President Reuven Rivlin recently said of Israel.
Weird as it is, the announced indictment doesn't automatically require Netanyahu, currently the acting prime minister, to step down. The Israeli law requires any minister other than the prime minister to resign the post if indicted. It doesn't say explicitly either if Netanyahu is illegible to run for office again if Likud wins the elections, which leaves the decision on the matter with the High Court of Justice.
On the last day of 2019, the court held a preliminary hearing on whether a lawmaker facing a criminal indictment can be tapped to form a coalition, but the deliberations produced no clear result. Opinions of the three-judge panel differed whether the attorney general and whether the high court should discuss the issue at hand, or they must wait until the matter is no longer "theoretical" and Netanyahu is tasked with forming a coalition.
Concluding the session, the court agreed to hand down at a later stage its decision that has the potential to both put an end to Prime Minister Netanyahu's political future and give him a fresh opening.
Politics in deadlock
Over the past decade, Israeli politics have become not about ideas and real principles but rather about seeking an alternative to Benjamin Netanyahu. A master of coalitions, Netanyahu has built a practice of bringing to power, not the party that got the majority votes of its electorate but the one that could make a national unity government with other contenders, such as the right-wing and religious parties. Israel does not have a system of direct election for the post of the prime minister, and the people at large vote for parties.
The Knesset's unprecedented Dec. 11 decision was made after a chain of unsuccessful attempts to unify the country's government. In 2019, Benjamin Netanyahu twice in a row failed to form it following the April 9 and Sept. 17 elections.
In October, the Likud and the Blue and White parties failed to compromise on establishing a national unity government needed for Israel's stability. Shortly after the September elections, it became clearer that neither Likud nor Blue and White had a path to a coalition without the other.
Netanyahu's challenger Benny Gantz couldn't put together a ruling coalition to establish a government either. Eventually, Gantz's Blue and White party refused to join a coalition with Netanyahu as a prime minister under indictment or one that would require it to support parliamentary immunity for him.
All in all, it reflects the deep-rooted instabilities of Israel's political life that can only lead to unhappiness for the citizens of this country. Recent opinion polls reveal that more than 40% of respondents blame the troubles on Netanyahu, the longest-serving prime minister and Likud's chairman. Only 5% hold Benny Gantz, an ex-military chief and the leader of the Blue and White main opposition party with who liberal-minded people of Israel associate their hopes for the future, responsible.
An unparalleled year-long political deadlock has been produced by the mounting uncertainties. The turmoil started after Netanyahu, the prime minister of Israel for 20 years and the Likud party leader for 14 years, failed to put together a government after the April 2019 national elections. The elections rerun in September didn't bring Likud the required majority either, while the people of Israel at large went to vote to block Netanyahu from winning and staying in power than to make their candidate win.
Political instability in the country is aggravated by Netanyahu's problems with the law. Besides corruption and embezzlement, Netanyahu is blamed for his personality cult, high budget deficit and deteriorated health care and education, not to mention his aggressive anti-Palestinian policies. To make matters worse, the current acting prime minister has been formally issued a criminal indictment in three cases in November and is scheduled to face a court trial. Though not required by law, the acting prime minister should resign on his own due to ethical considerations, many in Israel believe, which Netanyahu is quite reluctant to do.
Fraud and breach of trust
In November, Netanyahu was formally indicted for fraud and breach of trust in three cases, and bribery in one of them, as the attorney general informed the Knesset accordingly. Netanyahu strongly disagrees and has repeatedly accused law enforcement authorities, including his own appointee Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit, of fabricating false charges against him and conspiracy to topple him.
Still, Mandelblit appears reluctant to produce a legal opinion on the matter of Netanyahu's eligibility despite being asked by the high court to do so. In turn, Netanyahu addressed the high court in writing on Dec. 30. "It's inconceivable that one public official, the attorney general, as important as he is, will determine instead of the general public along with its representatives in the Knesset who can run the state and who cannot," he said while adding that, "In a democracy, those who decide who will lead are the people – the people, and no else."
A shrewd political fighter, Netanyahu is aware the law doesn't oblige him to resign over the announced indictments and is reluctant to step down. This has generated massive indignation to produce petitions to the High Court of Justice demanding his resignation. One of them noted the voters' right to know ahead of the upcoming March 2, 2020, elections if Netanyahu can be legally appointed prime minister by President Reuven Rivlin in case his party wins.
The hearing on Dec. 31 came in response to a petition submitted by attorney Daphne Holtz-Lachner on behalf of a group of 67 well-known public figures, academics and executives requesting clarity on the status of Netanyahu, who has been charged in three corruption cases.
The petition argued that even if, under the law, Netanyahu cannot be asked to resign, the court should rule on his eligibility as a caretaker prime minister – not a full prime minister – to be tasked with forming and heading a coalition government.
While the law offers no clear standard for the prime minister's eligibility in case of an indictment, judicial precedents from the early 1990s supported by a longstanding practice set a standard for other ministers who were forced to resign their cabinet posts once the indictments had been announced. As for the case of Netanyahu, it'll be eventually up to the high court to rule if an indicted acting prime minister can form a government.
The three announced indictments against Netanyahu are heavy. In Case 1000 and Case 2000, Netanyahu is charged with fraud and breach of trust. In Case 4000, widely seen as the most serious, Netanyahu is accused of having advanced regulatory decisions to the benefit of the controlling shareholder in a telecom giant to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars, and he's charged with bribery. Netanyahu denies any wrongdoing.
Likud at a crossroads
Regardless of his troubles, Netanyahu continues enjoying strong support as the Likud leader and has managed to regain the chairman position in the Dec. 26 primaries. Still, Likud has witnessed diverging of opinions on what their long-serving chairman should do. Certain party members are deeply frustrated with the ongoing political turmoil flavored by indictments against Netanyahu.
Benny Begin, the son of the party's iconic founder Menachem Begin, has called on Netanyahu to resign over impending corruption charges on ethical grounds. Begin, a close confidant and ultimate supporter of Netanyahu until recently, has blamed him for the unprecedented repeated elections and publicly expressed concern about the Likud's party ethics.
"The heads of the ruling party are trying to turn the tables on our law enforcement institutions to prevent them from doing their jobs," Begin said in his recent interview. "Netanyahu's reaction to the triple indictment against him, hurling false accusations at law enforcement, saying we're witnessing an 'attempted coup,' and that the process was meant to topple a sitting prime minister from the right – these are libels, and his representatives are echoing these lies."
* Freelance journalist living in Istanbul