Analysis

Decision to Indict Netanyahu Month Before Election Changes Everything

The prime minister must now carry a new millstone around his neck, and it will weigh him down in the Israeli election and in his dealings with world leaders

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during a cabinet meeting in December 2017.
\ POOL/ REUTERS

From a purely legal and technical perspective, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s situation has not changed today. For the last three years, he was the target of police probes and a suspect in criminal investigations. That remains his status after Avichai Mendelblit’s decision Thursday evening to indict him for bribery, fraud and breach of trust in three separate cases, pending a hearing.

As the standard form of the letter Netanyahu received from the attorney general put it, “he is considering indicting” him. Nothing final. Just considering.

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Yet everything has now changed for Netanyahu. The police conduct hundreds of thousands of investigations annually. Tens of thousands are handed onto the Justice Ministry’s prosecutors. Only about a quarter of them result in indictments pending hearings.

Theoretically, Netanyahu’s team of lawyers – and those of the other defendants in cases 1000, 2000 and 4000 – can still convince Mendelblit not to indict their client. It happens, especially in white-collar cases, where the criminal intent is often difficult to prove beyond reasonable doubt. In this particular white-collar case, it will be especially difficult.

One of the largest teams of investigators ever – from the police and Securities Authority, and attorneys at all levels of the Justice Ministry – have worked on this case for three years. There was even a "devil’s advocate" team of lawyers tasked with presenting the defendants’ case.

Mendelblit’s decision to indict Netanyahu for bribery and breach of trust in Case 4000 and fraud and breach of trust in cases 1000 and 2000 was more lenient than the opinion of many of the attorneys, including State Prosecutor Shai Nitzan. It is extremely unlikely the hearing will now change the attorney general’s mind.

Netanyahu and his proxies in the media will continue to deny there was any wrongdoing in his actions and that this is all the product of a left-wing witch hunt.

But in the 24 hours before Mendelblit’s announcement, you could already hear an evolution in their messaging. There’s a new tone. It is saying that no matter what Netanyahu is accused of and what he may have done, Israel needs him. If he is forced to leave, Israel’s security will be in jeopardy, so stop making such a fuss about a few cigars and some friendly articles on a website.

Just a day before Mendelblit’s announcement on Thursday evening, Netanyahu was still in Moscow, meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin. It was the perfect setting for the new message – Israel needs Netanyahu because only he can speak to Putin. The main quote the Prime Minister’s Office released from the meeting encapsulated that: Netanyahu had apparently told Putin “the direct link between us is a vital component in preventing risks and friction between our militaries and contributes to security and stability in the region."

The Russian-speaking Environmental Protection Minister Zeev Elkin sat in on the Putin-Netanyahu meeting. He was on Israeli radio immediately after returning to extol Netanyahu’s personal rapport with his Russian counterpart and to paint a farcical picture of Kahol Lavan co-leaders Benny Gantz and Yair Lapid arriving to meet Putin, arguing between them over who would go in first.

Netanyahu’s inner circle understands that it has to accept that some voters will believe Mendelblit, and they need to convince them that if even the indictments are true, it doesn’t mean Netanyahu must leave.

They are exposed not only to the recently published polls, which are showing a slow but noticeable shift of right-wing voters from the governing coalition parties – particularly Kulanu, but also Likud – toward Gantz and Lapid’s alliance. They are also reading the internal polling that is showing, in the words of one right-wing pollster working for a coalition party, that “the Likud vote is brittle – holding for now, but Mendelblit’s announcement could break off a significant proportion.”

Netanyahu will shrug off all the allegations and pretend everything can continue as normal. He is still prime minister, defense minister and leader of Likud. But he knows that from today, he is a prime minister on notice. Israel has never been in this situation; these are uncharted waters.

What’s more, everyone around Netanyahu will know he is on notice. Next month, in the White House, President Donald Trump will know it. The audience at the AIPAC Policy Conference will know it. It will be at the front of the minds of everyone engaging with him – including Putin when they next talk on the phone.

When Israelis go to vote on April 9, for the first time they will be asked to vote for a prime minister on notice. Should Netanyahu still succeed in winning enough votes to enter coalition negotiations, the other party leaders, his potential partners, will be able to demand the kind of prices a premier under notice must pay.

Mendelblit’s decision is not yet the final indictment. But it is a new millstone hung around Netanyahu’s neck, a weight no previous Israeli prime minister has ever experienced. He will now have to carry it around wherever he goes, and it will drag him down.