Israeli Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit ended months of speculation today in announcing his decision to indict Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on charges of bribery, fraud, and breach of trust. The move caps a dramatic and tumultuous year in Israeli politics. If convicted, Netanyahu could face prison time, potentially making him the second consecutive Israeli prime minister — after Ehud Olmert — to go to prison.
Mandelblit’s decision was not in and of itself a surprise, but that this indictment will include a charge of bribery, the most serious charge Netanyahu faced, represents the worst possible legal and political outcome for the prime minister. Netanyahu reacted to the announcement by sticking to his message: that he is the victim of a political witch hunt, accusing the state authorities of an attempted coup, no less. It is worth remembering that this attorney general, a civil servant (Israel has a separate political post of minister of justice) was a former Netanyahu aide and was appointed by him to this post. Netanyahu will not go quietly.
That this indictment will include a charge of bribery…represents the worst possible legal and political outcome for the prime minister.
The announcement comes amid political gridlock in Israel. Israelis voted in two elections in 2019 — one in April, and the second in September — and the prospect of a third elections looms large. After September’s vote, both Netanyahu and his main rival, the Blue and White alliance’s Benny Gantz, attempted to form a government and failed to do so.
“This is one of the most important times for soul-searching the state of Israel has known,” said Israeli President Reuven Rivlin, referring to the political impasse, as he handed the task of identifying a new prime minister back to the Israeli parliament, the Knesset, for a final 21 days, before third elections would be called for March.
Political jockeying to come
What does it all mean for Netanyahu’s political future? Israeli law does not prevent Netanyahu from serving as prime minister while under indictment or even while on trial. Only a final conviction — following all appeals — would bar him from the office, and Israel’s legal system is notoriously slow, especially when a well-represented defendant is intent on slowing the process down. A conviction following appeal, if it happened, would be years away.
Netanyahu is not just a sitting prime minister, however. He currently heads a caretaker government amid Israel’s unprecedented political crisis. The more immediate threat to Netanyahu’s position lies within his own party, the Likud. In October, we wrote that an indictment might provide political cover for challengers to Netanyahu to emerge from within the Likud. Of these, Gideon Sa’ar, former minister of the interior, seemed the most likely competitor. In October, when Netanyahu briefly proposed Likud party primaries in a bid to shore up his standing within the party, Sa’ar tweeted just two words: “I’m ready.”
With Netanyahu’s legal position now becoming much more precarious, deeper fissures in the party are emerging. Hours before the indictment was announced, Sa’ar demanded that the Likud hold primaries for its chair in the event of a third Knesset election. He could succeed in forming a government, he said, while Netanyahu could not. And even if Sa’ar were to lose these primaries to Netanyahu, he is calculating that a strong showing would allow him to position himself as the natural successor to lead the party.
This announcement comes just after Gantz ran out of time to form a government that could earn Knesset confidence in a formal vote. Netanyahu and Gantz were each allotted 28 days to try. With Gantz’s failure, a free-for-all now starts — though new elections in March are the most likely outcome.
Reports have emerged of friction within Blue and White over the failure to make the most of the mandate. Gantz has reportedly been frustrated with some of the more left-leaning members of his list for preventing the formation of a national unity government with the Likud. Yair Lapid reportedly objected strenuously to such an arrangement, which would have seen the position of prime minister rotate between Netanyahu and then Gantz. Gantz also reportedly has been frustrated with his right flank, specifically the junior members of the part led by Moshe Ya’alon, who objected to forming a government that would have required the support of the majority-Arab parties.
In theory, there is still time for Israel to head off new elections. If the Likud, or other parts of the right wing, broke with Netanyahu over his indictment, a new government could be formed quite readily. Mandelblit’s announcement may provide the cover right-wingers needed to do so, but the time is very short — too short. With Netanyahu digging in, a primary to replace him would take a while, leaving precious little time for a government to be formed. (We laid out the key dates to understand here.)
The big picture
Immediate political considerations aside, this is, as many in Israel have noted, a sad day for the country, regardless of one’s opinion of Netanyahu. It is also a proud day, of sorts, for the legal institutions of Israel. Despite incessant and vicious attacks against the institutions and those who serve in them — with baseless accusations of deep-state coups and political vendettas hurled at them — this development reinforces that no one is above the law in Israel, including a leader in office. With all its flaws, that is something Israeli democracy could serve to teach other countries.