Constitutional Crisis On Horizon?


Tel Aviv — It has a familiar ring. A head of state railing at a formal investigation into his alleged corruption and complaining that it’s part of a witch-hunt.

In response, legal scholars and political commentators warn of a constitutional crisis.

It might sound like the tug-of-war between President Donald Trump and the Justice Department or the FBI. But something similar is actually playing out here after Israel’s police department recommended this week that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife, Sara, be indicted on allegations of taking bribes. It marks the third time this year the police have called for criminal prosecution of the prime minister.

The probe, nicknamed “Case 4000,” involves a police allegation that Netanyahu ensured that Israeli regulatory policy favored Bezeq, Israel’s telephone monopoly, to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars; in return, Bezeq’s controlling stakeholder, Israeli tycoon Shaul Elovitch, allowed Netanyahu and his wife to influence coverage at Walla!, a news website Elovitch owns.

Netanyahu swiftly responded in an address at the Likud Party central committee’s Chanukah candle-lighting ceremony, calling the case a “fixed game.” He claimed that the police had cooked up the charges even before the investigation started. He criticized the outgoing police chief, who he himself appointed to the post.

It’s not the first time that the prime minister has taken issue with police investigations against him. Earlier this year, in “Case 1000,” the police allege that the prime minister accepted hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of gifts from Israeli tycoons.

And in “Case 2000,” Netanyahu is accused of offering to pass legislation that would improve the competitive position of the Yediot Achronot newspaper, in return for favorable coverage.

“The witch-hunt against me and my wife continues,” Netanyahu said, accusing the police of deliberately targeting him and right-wing politicians, and ignoring the ties between newspaper publishers and opposition figures.

From the beginning of the first police investigation more than two years ago, Netanyahu has promised that “nothing will come of it, because there’s nothing” to the allegations.

The police recommendations on Case 4000, which will pass the decision on indictment to Attorney General Avichai Mandelblitt, come just ahead of an election year in Israel. Barring a decision by Mandelblitt — a former political aide to Netanyahu — to close all of the cases, the Israeli parliamentary elections are likely to be held against the backdrop of the corruption cases.

Until now, Netanyahu’s cloud of legal cases hasn’t affected his strong poll numbers. The prime minister’s Likud Party continues to poll as the most popular political party in Israel. And if an election were held today, it would very likely result in a victory for Netanyahu’s coalition.

Israelis view the scandals through a political lens: the more right-wing one is, the more one is likely to disagree with the notion that the ruling coalition is corrupt. According to the study released by the Israel Democracy Institute (IDI) this week, only 15 percent of voters for the pro-settlement Jewish Home Party and 23 percent of Likud supports consider Netanyahu’s administration corrupt.

For the ultra-liberal Meretz party, it’s 78 percent and 67 percent, respectively.

“Supporters of Netanyahu will say, ‘Here is proof that he’s being hunted,’ and people in the opposition will say, ‘here is proof that he is corrupt,’” said Avraham Diskin, a professor of political science at Hebrew University. “It’s just going to increase the polarization.”

Netanyahu alleged this week that the police recommendation was timed to coincide with the last day of Police Chief Ronny Alsheikh — whose strained relationship with the prime minister came out into the open in recent months — as a sort of revenge.

To the cheers of “Bibi, Bibi” he laid out a 20-minute attack alleging that that the police and the Israeli media are out to get him.

“Whoever listens to the news in recent days and months might think that it’s the rule of law that is being put on trial, rather than an individual,” said Yedidia Stern, a law professor at Bar Ilan University and vice president of the IDI, in an interview with Israel Radio.

“We are witnessing a wall-to-wall campaign of people in the government to judge the judges — those who are responsible for the investigating, for preparing indictments, those responsible for public integrity. And the biggest target of them all is the Supreme Court. There’s a direct targeting of the legal system.’”

The prime minister’s success in portraying himself as the victim of a witch-hunt has helped bolster his public support. At the same time he’s still seen by much of the Israeli public as the most capable leader in the country, whether or not he is liked personally.

“In the eyes of the public, he is the only statesman; people see him as the best person who manages coalition politics,” said Dahlia Scheindlin, a pollster and public opinion expert.

“People see him as Mr. Security on some level. There’s a sense that things are really good right now. People appreciate the status quo and that he’s not rocking the boat — and that includes not going to war,” she said.

Now, the main question on the horizon is whether the parliamentary elections will be held before or after the attorney general decides regarding indictment.

“[Netanyahu] has a lot of persuasive power that people listen to. He has media outlets that are echoing back what he says,” said Tal Schneider, a correspondent at the Israeli business publication Globes. “Contrary to what he says that that everyone is out to get him, I think that there are lot of people who are protecting him.”

Schneider said it’s unclear whether Yair Lapid, leader of the centrist Yesh Atid Party and the leading opposition rival to Netanyahu, would agree to sit in a coalition led by a prime minister who has been indicted.

There is no Israeli law that forces a prime minister who has been indicted from continuing to serve, but the Israeli Supreme Court has forced government ministers and other office holders to step down.

If Netanyahu is re-elected to a fifth term in office before an indictment, he could use that election as a political flak jacket against pressures to resign the premiership. He would then be able to shift pressure back onto the state attorney’s office, the attorney general and the Israeli courts for overruling the will of the public.

There is no playbook for Israel’s political system — which lacks a constitution — about how it would all sort out.

“Netanyahu is fully aware that once he is indicted, the legal situation will be totally unclear, no matter what his proxies say in public about the law being clear that a prime minister must resign only after he has been convicted in court,” wrote columnist and Netanyahu biographer Anshel Pfeffer in Haaretz.

“An elected prime minister who insists on remaining in office despite multiple indictments will be challenged in the High Court of Justice,” Pfeffer said. “However the judges are inclined to rule, it will have all the makings of a constitutional crisis.”