Rivalries, Indictment Talk Have Israel Tied Up In Knots


Tel Aviv — Israeli analysts are calling it the political “plonter.”

The Yiddish word for knot is being used to describe the deadlock between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud Party and Blue and White leader Benny Gantz in the aftermath of the Sept. 17 election.

That Gordian knot is further complicated by the Wednesday commencement of a pre-indictment hearing for Netanyahu in a series of corruption cases that include charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust. That’s because Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit’s final decision about an indictment — which will be made any time before the end of the year — could generate public pressure for Netanyahu’s resignation and erode his rock-solid position within Likud.     

Recognizing that neither Likud nor Blue and White has a chance of forming a stable coalition without the other, the parties are involved in talks toward a so-called “unity” government reminiscent of the coalitions that took place between 1984 and 1988. (At the time, the left-wing Labor Party and Likud Party participated as equals and rotated the premiership between party leaders Shimon Peres and Yitzhak Shamir, respectively.)

This time around, however, the sides don’t appear to be serious about getting a deal. Instead, it all looks like a choreographed dance to lay the blame for the collapse of coalition negotiations — and a possible third round of voting within 12 months — at the feet of the other side. Indeed, as Rosh HaShanah ended on Tuesday evening, the Blue and White party canceled a negotiation session scheduled the following morning so as not to compete with media coverage of the start of Netanyahu’s pre-indictment hearing. 

“It seems like a lot of theater,” Natan Sachs, the director of the Center for Middle East policy at the Brookings Institute and an expert on Israeli politics, told The Jewish Week. “It’s not genuine negotiations. It’s a power play to lay blame for the failure of the talks. It’s timed to the legal process.”

Sachs added that Netanyahu wants to start the legal process from a position of strength, as prime minister. (He can only escape indictment, for now at least, if he is prime minister.)

“Today, Netanyahu seems in control of the political process, but he’s facing a daunting legal process. The clock of the attorney general is the main threat to him.”

Nearly two-thirds of Israeli Jews prefer a unity government to a new round of elections, according to a poll by the Israel Democracy Institute. 

Avigdor Lieberman, the former defense minister who heads the secular right-wing Yisrael Beiteinu party, could break the deadlock and serve as the kingmaker with his party’s eight parliamentary seats. Calling for a national unity government, Lieberman has ruled out sitting in a narrow right-wing government that relies on the charedim as well as a center-left government that depends on the backing of Arab parties. On Wednesday he said that he would put forth a proposal to break the deadlock if the sides don’t reach a breakthrough before Yom Kippur.

The attorney general in March announced plans to indict Netanyahu subject to the hearing — an unprecedented political-legal development in Israeli history. Over the next four days, Netanyahu’s lawyers will try to convince Israel Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit and Israeli state prosecutors to drop the charges.

In the most serious case, Netanyahu is accused of bribing businessman Sahul Elovich with financial regulations to preserve the competitive advantage of Bezeq, his telecom company, in return for favorable coverage by the news website controlled by the tycoon.

In a second case, Netanyahu is accused of breach of the public trust by suggesting a deal with the publisher of Yediot Ahronot, Arnon Mozes, to limit the ability of a competitor, Sheldon Adelson’s Yisrael Hayom, in return for favorable coverage. The third case, also charging breach of trust, involved Netanyahu’s acceptance of more than $250,000 in gifts from business tycoons without having declared them as such to government authorities.

Ahead of the first hearing sessions, Netanyahu’s lawyers said they planned to present new evidence to prosecutors that would ultimately convince them to drop the charges.

Netanyahu, who has repeatedly declared, “There won’t be anything because there was nothing,” tweeted on Wednesday, “Everything will collapse!”

According to the same Israel Democracy Institute poll, a small majority of Israelis oppose the idea of offering Netanyahu a plea deal that would enable him to avoid a trial. 

An Israeli public radio commentator said that the timing of the attorney general’s decision will be especially sensitive: Will it come in the next few weeks when Gantz has the mandate to form a coalition? Or maybe smack in the middle of an unthinkable third election campaign.

“The decision [of the attorney general] isn’t just a legal decision. It’s a legal-political-electoral decision,” said Hanan Crystal, a political affairs commentator for Kan Israel public radio. “The possibility of another election is the elephant in [Mandelblit’s room]. … As a result, the decision he makes and timing has huge political implications.”

In coalition negotiations, Netanyahu and Likud are insisting that Netanyahu serve as the prime minister first, and then Gantz. They also want to function as a parliamentary bloc with the ultra-Orthodox and the Zionist religious “Yamina” parties.

“[Netanyahu] wants to have Benny Gantz as the fifth wheel. But that’s wishful thinking,” said Tal Schneider, a political correspondent for the financial daily Globes newspaper. “Blue and White would lose everything if it joins a Netanyahu government.”

Such a move would be untenable for Gantz because he vowed not to join a coalition headed by Netanyahu as long as the corruption charges are hanging over the prime minister’s head.

The prime minister, by contrast, can’t afford to allow Gantz to serve as prime minister for the next two years because, in the case of an indictment, cabinet ministers are required to resign under judicial precedent. By law, a prime minister isn’t required to resign until a final conviction.

Before giving Netanyahu the formal mandate to form a government last week, President Reuven Rivlin proposed a compromise whereby Netanyahu would serve as prime minister first. Under the proposal, in the event an indictment is served, Netanyahu would be obliged to take a leave of absence, and Gantz would become acting prime minister and be invested with all of the powers of the office.

“If indeed the attorney general would decide to charge Mr. Netanyahu with bribery and breach of public confidence, Mr. Netanyahu would face a very difficult political situation and would have to resign or leave office for a while,” said Gad Barzilai, a political science professor at Haifa University.

If the attorney general decides to indict before Netanyahu can cement a coalition, Israel is likely to find itself in uncharted legal waters and a possible constitutional crisis, said Professor Yedidia Stern, a law professor at Bar-Ilan University and a senior fellow at the Israel Democracy Institute.

It’s unclear whether a Knesset member facing indictment could get a presidential mandate to become prime minister. That would likely lead to a legal petition for a ruling by Israel’s Supreme Court — setting up a situation in which the judicial branch would decide the election, a replay of the U.S. Supreme Court’s intervention after the 2000 presidential vote. Such an outcome would be bad for Israel’s democracy.

Concluded Schneider, “We’re all stuck.”