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By Calling Early Elections, Netanyahu Is Taking the Gamble of His Life

It's the investigations, stupid: Once the State Prosecutor's Office determined that Netanyahu ought to be indicted, the premier realized he was facing elections

Yossi Verter
Yossi Verter
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Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends the weekly cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister's office in Jerusalem, September 2018.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends the weekly cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister's office in Jerusalem, September 2018.Credit: Sebastian Scheiner,AP
Yossi Verter
Yossi Verter

The countdown to the election campaign began last Wednesday afternoon – and we didn’t know it.

In hindsight, the chain of events from then until yesterday, events that are presumably unrelated, can be interpreted as links in the prime minister’s decision to disperse the Knesset quickly and to rush into elections as soon as possible: before lightning strikes him, before the attorney general decides whether to indict him subject to a hearing, before he turns into a lame duck, into one of the walking dead, into a very likely potential defendant.

Haaretz Weekly podcast, Episode 9Credit: Haaretz

All the considerations that prevailed until now, like the intention of holding the election in May or June, after Independence Day celebrations and the Eurovision Song Contest, or even later, in September, went out the window. The supreme and only priority that has dictated Netanyahu’s steps from that evening until now is his complicated legal situation. In the end it’s the investigations, dummy.

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So what actually happened on Wednesday, December 19th? State Prosecutor Shai Nitzan concluded his speech at the business conference sponsored by the financial daily Globes. At the same time, it was reported that his staff, who worked for months on the Netanyahu files, had made a decision: The prime minister should be charged with bribery in two cases, 4000 and 2000 (Case 4000, the Bezeq affair, involves allegations that telecommunications tycoon Shaul Elovitch gave the premier favorable media coverage on his Walla website in exchange for regulatory favors, while Case 2000 relates to Netanyahu’s dealings with Yedioth Ahronoth publisher Arnon Mozes). To describe this development as a sledgehammer blow to the heads of the residents of Balfour Street would be the understatement of the millennium.

The obvious conclusion is that in light of the agreement among the State Prosecutor's Office, Tax Authority prosecutors and the police, the chances that Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit will decide to drop all charges against the suspect are nonexistent. This realization began, slowly but surely, to penetrate even the consciousness of outright supporters of Netanyahu. That, of course is also the conclusion reached by Netanyahu’s attorneys.

That same evening the universe turned upside down, the world order changed – and we didn’t sense it. For example: Coalition whip David Amsalem, who has repeatedly declared that the ultra-Orthodox draft bill would be taken care of “at the last moment,” in other words during the second week of January, fell silent. In the Prime Minister’s Bureau they realized that this excuse will have to be pulled out earlier.

The special committee meeting headed by Amsalem, which was supposed to convene the next day in order to take care of the “Gideon Sa’ar bill” (which would force the president to entrust forming a coalition only to the head of a party) that was of the utmost importance to Netanyahu, had been canceled. The official reason was “legal problems.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, listens to cabinet secretary Avichai Mendelblit during the weekly cabinet meeting at his Jerusalem office, 2014.Credit: AP

A special, internal political consultation in the Prime Minister’s Residence with the heads of Likud institutions, ministers Haim Katz (chairman of the Central Committee) and Yisrael Katz (chairman of the Secretariat) and Yariv Levin, which was supposed to discuss party matters, was also canceled. There was already an election atmosphere in the Prime Minister’s Office and at his residence.

The announcement on Sunday night of Levin’s appointment as the acting immigrant absorption minister (which doesn’t require Knesset approval) instead of appointing Tzipi Hotovely as a permanent minister, is another part of the puzzle. Netanyahu already knew that the Knesset was irrelevant. When all the political players were discussing all kinds of false scenarios, he was already focused on the real thing.

The State Prosecutor Office's decision doesn’t leave the attorney general room to maneuver. He’s locked in. A bribery indictment in one or two cases and is unavoidable. He is going to a lightning election, by Israeli standards, with a campaign season of 106 days, in the hope that the attorney general’s decision won’t be publicized during the course of the campaign.

The possibility that he won’t be reelected, and that he will eventually be treated by the justice system like any other citizen, is a calculated risk. With his decision, Netanyahu wants to challenge the attorney general and to prevent a situation in which Mendelblit's decision will be made public right on the eve of the election, as could be understood from the declarations of state prosecutors, who spoke of the first quarter of 2019.

He is gambling that Mendelblit will be deterred from such a dramatic step and will wait until after the election. That is the gamble of his life, no less.

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