Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s struggle for survival will be fought on multiple fronts and will leave few players in Israel’s political and legal establishment unscathed. It will define not only the future of Netanyahu’s career and his legacy, but that of the next generation of Israeli leaders.
Netanyahu is a rare combination of an ideologue with a clear worldview – which in his case has not wavered since he entered public life as a Zionist student activist at MIT in the early 1970s – and a canny political operator with a rarely erring knack of identifying the Israeli public’s fears and neuroses, and the vulnerabilities of its governing structures.
In the aftermath of Tuesday’s police recommendations to indict him on double charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust, it is already clear that he made a colossal mistake two years ago, perhaps fatal for him, in naming Roni Alsheich as Israel’s police commissioner. Plucking spy-chief Alsheich out of the shadows of the Shin Bet security service, Netanyahu probably believed he would spend the next years dealing with the scandal-ridden police force and have no appetite for investigating politicians.
Alsheich has surprised everyone by directing his investigators to leave no stone unturned in the Netanyahu probes and issuing recommendations of maximum severity. He is lost to Netanyahu, an implacable enemy, when not so long ago the prime minister couldn’t have enough group photos with the roly-poly police chief. Alsheich will continue being a target for Netanyahu’s proxies. But with the recommendations now out, the focus is moving elsewhere.
Like Alsheich, Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit fit the mold of Netanyahu’s favorite sort of appointee: religious, low-key, loyal. After a career in the Israel Defense Forces’ legal branch that ended as military advocate general, Mendelblit could have looked forward to a less exciting second career as a district court judge.
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Netanyahu offered him something better, appointing him cabinet secretary in 2013 and putting him at the center of power before he was elevated to the head of the law-enforcement hierarchy. What are the chances that Mendelblit will “do an Alsheich”?
They are very different types. The spy-police chief has spent his career as a no-holds-barred investigator; Mendelblit has been a lawyer weighing up both sides of an argument and its chances of holding up in court.
It would be wrong to assume that, having worked closely with Netanyahu for three years, Mendelblit is now loath to indict him. But the enormity of the task facing him is daunting for a consummate civil servant, and he does not relish the prospect of an official bringing down an elected leader. Netanyahu and his allies are already playing on Mendelblit’s doubts and dilemmas.
Mendelblit has been identified as the weakest link. He is being bombarded with legal opinions kicking holes in the police narrative, every shape of lawyers’ delaying tactics and oblique warnings that if he does endorse the recommendations and indict, he will be “politicizing” the state prosecution. The attorney general will meticulously go through every stage of the prosecutorial analysis of the police recommendations in the two cases – one involving lavish gifts to the Netanyahus from two billionaires in exchange for alleged favors; the other concerning an alleged quid pro quo with Yedioth Ahronoth publisher Arnon Mozes – and weigh up any additional pieces of evidence and arguments presented by Netanyahu’s legal team. They will keep up the pressure, and Mendelblit is unlikely to reach any conclusions before the second half of 2018.
Meanwhile, the Netanyahu machine will be working hard to shore up its political and public flanks. The pundits of Israel Hayom and other Netanyahu-supporting journalists have been briefed. On Army Radio on Wednesday, the daily Bibi-living hour hosted by Erel Segal featured as co-host Shimon Riklin – Netanyahu’s favored interviewer. Both spent their time kicking out against the rest of the Israeli media for its concerted campaign to bring down an elected prime minister on trumped-up charges.
The key constituencies of public opinion in Netanyahu’s base must continue to believe that, despite his long years in power, he is still their underdog standing up to the elites. If right-wing and religious voters begin to waver and question Bibi, it may not be so easy to keep his aspiring rivals in line.
The six most prominent candidates to fill Netanyahu’s place as leader of the Israeli right are currently too scared to raise the banner of revolt. They have all either kept quiet or endorsed Netanyahu. Within Likud, Yisrael Katz, Gideon Sa’ar and Gilad Erdan are all too petrified of the Bibi supporters. As the party’s senior minister, Katz might be best positioned to replace Netanyahu if Bibi suddenly resigns – but his timing will have to be perfect. A premature challenge will doom his chances.
The ambitious Erdan has to bear the burden of being the minister in charge of the police. Netanyahu’s circle already blames him for not reining in Alsheich. Usually a willing interviewee, Erdan is keeping silent.
Sa’ar is not currently an MK and so can’t become prime minister without another election being held. But he’s not about to stick his neck out either.
The leaders of the rival right-wing parties – Naftali Bennett, Avigdor Lieberman and Moshe Kahlon – are all reluctant to risk early elections, because they currently hold powerful ministries that may not be theirs in a new Knesset.
Besides, to become prime minister, they will have to find a way of amalgamating their current parties with Likud, which won’t welcome someone who was disloyal to its leader. For now, Netanyahu can be confident a palace coup is not on the cards.
The center-left cometh? Probably not
Is this the moment for a challenger from the center-left? Yair Lapid has been thrust into the heart of the Netanyahu investigations, after it was revealed he is to be a witness for the prosecution in the event of an indictment. The slew of accusations from Netanyahu loyalists that he is a “snitch,” and other pejoratives from the criminal world, are not surprising. But Lapid, who on Wednesday called upon Netanyahu to resign, knows that he who wields the knife very rarely gets to sit on the throne. Having a hand in Netanyahu’s downfall won’t help him form a governing coalition after the next Knesset election.
This could have been the moment of Labor Chairman Avi Gabbay, who might have been the standard-bearer of a cleaner and more transparent leadership. But the upstart who surprised everyone last year after coming from nowhere to win the Labor primaries is discovering that there is a limit to what he can do when he doesn’t take his own party colleagues into consideration. After angering many of them with his statements on religion and settlements, and his lack of consultation, he lacks the supporting cast a party leader needs to mount a serious challenge. And Lapid is still enjoying most of the opposition limelight.
As the shock of Tuesday night’s recommendations begin to wear off and the Netanyahu operation gears up, the lineup hasn’t changed all that much. He lost this round to Alsheich but, facing a ponderous, hesitant attorney general and a weak rank of challengers, Netanyahu still has everything to fight for.
Even if Mendelblit gets around to indicting him, Bibi can still argue that in Israel a prime minister does not have to resign unless convicted and he was elected to serve until the end of 2019. If his Likud colleagues and coalition partners still can’t muster the courage to confront him, a new and previously untested figure may get the opportunity to influence events.
The law is unclear on whether a prime minister can continue to serve after being indicted. In a 1993 ruling, the High Court of Justice decided that a minister must resign once indicted. But the accepted legal opinion has been that a prime minister would be different, since his resignation brings down the entire government.
But the precedent has never been tested and there are legal experts who believe otherwise. Should we reach that point, the court will certainly be petitioned. The right wing will no doubt scream of “judicial activism” and “legal interventionism,” and we will find out what the new Supreme Court president is made of. Sworn-in only five months ago and virtually unknown outside of judicial circles, we have yet to get her measure. But by the end of the year, it may be Supreme Court President Esther Hayut, chairing the court and choosing the justices who will sit beside her, who will ultimately decide Netanyahu and Israel’s fate.