Israelis Ask: Who’s On First?


With Israel’s third national election in less than a year set to take place on Monday, a key question remains unanswered — besides the obvious one of whether either of the two major parties, Likud on the right, or Blue and White on the center-right, will do well enough to finally form a coalition.

There is a very real possibility that when the long, drawn-out election process is finally concluded weeks from now, Benjamin Netanyahu will still be prime minister. And he will still be under indictment, charged with three counts of corruption. There are no legal grounds in Israel to force the resignation or leave-of-absence of a prime minister under indictment. So can the leader of the state continue to serve when he is charged by the state with criminal actions?

We look to Israeli President Reuven Rivlin, who has shown courage and leadership in using his largely symbolic role, to strive for unity in a deeply divided society. Last September, he proposed a possible solution for this potential dilemma when he met with Netanyahu, who heads Likud, and Benny Gantz, the leader of Blue and White. Rivlin’s compromise plan would extend Israel’s application of an “incapacitation” policy that came about when Prime Minister Ariel Sharon became gravely ill in 2005, setting forth a process to fill the leadership vacuum. A new law would be required to include “incapacitation” for legal problems in addition to health problems.

Rivlin’s proposal would apply in a unity government in which Netanyahu and Gantz would rotate in the role of prime minister, with Netanyahu serving first. The plan would have Gantz take over and lead the government when Netanyahu is “incapacitated” during his legal battles.

When Rivlin offered his proposal, the scenario was hypothetical. Netanyahu had not yet been indicted and he was seeking passage of legislation that would give him immunity while in office. Since then the imagined situation has become more real. Netanyahu has been indicted and he withdrew his immunity proposal when he saw it would not pass the Knesset. His trial is set to begin March 17, unless the prime minister’s lawyers seek a delay.

When does “incapacitation” begin? The day the trial starts? Somewhere during the course of the deliberations? At the end? It’s unclear, and while Rivlin has called for Netanyahu and Gantz to “meet halfway” in resolving the issue, that’s not likely. Netanyahu has suggested that at some point “we will both be prime ministers together,” according to news reports. Rivlin reportedly objected, saying, “you are going too far, there cannot be two prime ministers at the same time.”

Clearly, the difference of views needs to be resolved, including the extent of authority Gantz would have if and when Netanyahu is “incapacitated,” and what role Netanyahu would have, if any, in the government at that time.

Only Rivlin has the respect and clout to make these important decisions. And he should make them known publicly as soon as possible. Israelis have enough confusion going to the polls again without wondering when and how a political stalemate will play out in the case of such an unprecedented trial.