Tel Aviv — It was a cold night after the end of a holiday week, but the throng of supporters of Benjamin Netanyahu, buoyed by his landslide primary victory over challenger Gideon Saar for Likud leadership, nonetheless gathered in Habima Square on Monday night, energized and determined to carry forth the prime minister’s campaign for political and legal survival.
The prime minister turned his focus this week to a request for immunity from three corruption indictments against him as well as petitions to the Israeli high court that would invalidate him from getting a mandate to form a government after a third general election on March 2.
Speakers at the rally inveighed that the court had no standing to intervene in the vote and invalidate Netanyahu’s candidacy. At the same time, they alleged that a corrupt conspiracy of state attorneys and police officers had set him up on trumped up charges. All of it, they argued, was evidence of a deep-state putsch against the will of the people.
The crowd enthusiastically answered with chants of “investigate the investigators,” “you don’t have the authority” and “we are going to win.”
After routing Saar with more than 70 percent of the vote last week, the conventional wisdom among political observers is that the primary contest has displayed Likud’s democratic credentials, united the party around Netanyahu and revved up the engines of the party’s grassroots activists for the parliamentary election ahead. And if rival candidate Benny Gantz and the Blue and White party thought that bribery, fraud and breach of trust indictments would continue to erode the Likud’s electoral performance, the primary suggested otherwise.
The prime minister certainly looks like he has the momentum at this point, said Mitchell Barak, an Israeli-American public opinion expert and pollster.
“[Netanyahu] looks like less of a dictator. He had a challenger that everyone thought was a good candidate. He looks like he has the full backing of the party,” said Barak, a one-time aide to Netanyahu before he became prime minister. “The man was on fire. He was motivated, he was energized. He was doing three to five events a day. He’s a good campaigner. This has set him up for the campaign. He’s ready for the fight. This was a good warm-up.”
Because the upcoming campaign will be run in the shadow of the corruption indictments, the legal system and the very nature of Israel’s democracy are likely to figure as the beating heart of the horse race.
And Tuesday, an unfolding constitutional crisis further intensified the dimensions of the country’s political crisis, as a three-justice panel in the high court took up the question of whether they had jurisdiction to rule on Netanyahu’s fitness to get a mandate to form a government.
“In addition to the political chaos, we now have legal chaos,” declared former Justice Minister Daniel Friedman in an interview with IDF Radio before the high court hearing.
The petition against the prime minister argued that the public had a right to know whether Netanyahu was eligible to become prime minister before voting. The legal challenge was sponsored by 67 prominent Israeli academics, national security experts and high-tech executives — among them are Orna Berry, former Israeli chief scientist; Uzi Arad, Netanyahu’s former national security adviser; Rivka Carmi, the former president of Ben Gurion University; Eliahu Ben Nun, a former air force chief; and Dadi Perlmutter, a former executive vice president of Intel and the chairman of the government’s Innovation Authority.
Berry argued that the corruption indictments should disqualify Netanyahu in the same way that it would rule out candidates for other public service positions.
Netanyahu’s lawyers argued, according to a tweet by Barak Ravid, the diplomatic correspondent of Israel’s Channel 13 television news, that the court shouldn’t rule on the issue, and that the indictment shouldn’t factor into the consideration of Israeli President Reuven Rivlin, whose job is to bestow a mandate on a parliament member to form a coalition after the elections.
“This is a promo of Netanyahu’s campaign against Rivlin on the day after the election,” Ravid wrote. If Netanyahu’s block of supporters reaches a parliamentary majority in the vote, “he will say that ‘the people’ have exonerated him and that the indictments should be cancelled.”
Netanyahu this week began publicly laying the groundwork for a request for immunity from prosecution. The period for the prime minister to formally ask the parliament for immunity expires on Thursday, Jan. 2, 30 days after his indictment. Normally, the Knesset’s Arrangements Committee would vote on immunity before sending it to the full chamber. But since the panel hasn’t been seated due to the lack of a coalition, Netanyahu’s immunity request is expected to wait until after the election and the formation of a government — effectively freezing legal proceedings against him.
Speaking to a Likud gathering on Sunday, Netanyahu signaled he would make the request — reversing a statement from earlier this year that he had no intention to do so. “One thing is clear: immunity isn’t against democracy, it’s a foundation stone of democracy,” Netanyahu said on Sunday.
On Tuesday in Jerusalem, outside of the court chambers, Netanyahu supporters demonstrated with signs reading, “The people are the sovereign, Not the high court.” It was a continuation of the gathering the night before in Tel Aviv.
“The message is that we don’t want the Supreme Court to take control, and decide who can run and who can’t — that the court shouldn’t replace the will of the people,” said Yisrael Ben Aharon, 50, who had made an hour-long drive from Haifa to attend the Tel Aviv rally. “We on the right argue that the judicial branch is taking over the executive and legislative branches, and intervening in politics.”
Merav Shubeli, a former court clerk, said she supports the immediate cancellation of the indictments against the prime minister, alleging that the investigation against Netanyahu was unlawful.
“There is an effort to mount a governmental coup, and we want to protect democracy. They are trying to overthrow a prime minister by unlawful means. We believe in the prime minister’s innocence. He has labored day and night on behalf of the country.”
Despite those prominent voices — and the relatively muted opposition —some analysts questioned whether Netanyahu’s primary victory would give him enough momentum to carry the day in March. Yossi Verter, the political columnist for Haaretz, wrote that Likudniks’ worship of Netanyahu won’t necessarily translate to the broader voting constituency.