Analysis

Israel Election 2019: Netanyahu, More Emboldened Than Ever, Will Do Anything to Stop Indictment

If the Benjamin Netanyahu of 2015's election was smug, the prime minister who snagged a sweeping victory in 2019 won't stop at anything

Benjamin Netanyahu seen on campaign posters, Tel Aviv, April 10, 2019
AFP

After the 2015 election and the 30 Knesset seats that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu won almost single-handedly and virtually overnight in that campaign, he underwent a radical change. In his own view, he became a living legend, a mythical figure, larger than life, who was anointed for greatness by higher powers and was capable, in a single, brilliant campaign maneuver, of changing the course of history.

Such an intoxicating view of himself, that it was he and he alone, that he was Gulliver among the Lilliputians, eradicated what had remained of his judgment and awareness of himself. The direct result was his impending indictment for bribery, fraud and breach of trust in the Bezeq-Walla case, involving allegations that he traded government regulatory concessions for favorable coverage on the Walla news website. He truly believed that he was invulnerable, and the details of the allegations against him paint a picture of a leader who has thrown caution to the wind.

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If that’s what winning 30 seats against the Zionist Union duo of Isaac Herzog and Tzipi Livni did to him four years ago, what will be the impact this time around of winning at least 35 seats – once again due to his own efforts. This time it was against an all-star team of generals, after four more years in power, with indictments in three criminal cases pending against him subject to a hearing. And all this follows a new investigation and missiles on Tel Aviv?

Who is the Netanyahu who will step up to the Knesset lectern sometime in early June and be sworn in for the fifth time as prime minister? What rules that he has so far honored will he break? What checks and balances that he hasn’t yet ditched will he disregard? What remaining norms of statesmanship will he shatter?

The first indication came during the campaign. There wasn’t a lie or a blood libel, however despicable, that he and his team of advisers decided to forgo in their assault on Benny Gantz and the other leaders of the Kahol Lavan ticket. Compared to what was dished out to Gantz, a former army chief of staff and an honest, decent, pleasant man with a stellar reputation, what Herzog and Livni experienced in 2015 was a soothing massage.

There’s no doubt that the raison d’etre of Netanyahu’s political existence today is to save himself from the indictments that await him. Passing the so-called French law, which would bar a sitting prime minister from indictment, has apparently been taken off the table due to the lack of a guaranteed parliamentary majority. A second option – hiding behind his parliamentary immunity – would be easier to achieve, but it’s problematic for other reasons.

He is therefore likely to choose a third option – continuing to serve as prime minister even after being indicted. The law permits him to remain in office until a final verdict is rendered. His coalition partners will probably go along with this. Even if Moshe Kahlon’s four-seat Kulanu faction refuses its consent, he can still survive.

One of the key questions as we head into coalition negotiations is who will get the Justice Ministry portfolio. If Netanyahu wants to declare all-out war on the legal system and the Supreme Court, he will appoint Yariv Levin, who has it in for the judiciary and who makes outgoing Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked look almost like an innocent flower child.

An equally scandalous choice would be Bezalel Smotrich, one of the leaders of the Union of Right-Wing Parties. He’s a talented but dangerous man, a racist and homophobe.

On the other hand, if Netanyahu wants to make peace with the legal system, he might give the job to Likud Knesset member Tzachi Hanegbi, who held it 20 years ago, or to Yuval Steinitz, also of Likud. Both of them are reasonable, statesmanlike people who would be welcomed at the Justice Ministry and the Supreme Court.

Another interesting test of his intentions will be the Public Security Ministry. If evil inclinations get the better of him, and he seeks to interfere with the work of the investigators, Miri Regev, who as culture minister left behind a battered and bloody cultural world, would be happy to do the job for him.