- On Thursday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was indicted on bribery, fraud, and breach of trust charges as part of three separate corruption cases.
- The charges come amid political chaos in Israel, after two previous elections this year failed to yield a viable government.
- This scenario has never happened in modern Israeli politics, and what comes next is unclear.
- Still, Israel’s political future is as murky as Netanyahu’s legal future – and both remain tied to one another.
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Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has had a hell of a year, in which he lost two elections but has defiantly remained in office, and got indicted in three criminal cases that could bring Israel’s political system down with him.
The 70-year-old politician, who has remained in power for over a decade, was indicted on bribery, fraud, and breach of trust charges on Thursday. He is the first sitting Israeli prime minister ever to be indicted.
Netanyahu has denied all allegations and said the charges against him were part of a “witch hunt” orchestrated by the political left. The maximum sentence for bribery is 10 years in prison, according to Haaretz.
The charges laid out against him come at a particular tricky time for Israel. Neither Netanyahu nor his political rival, former Israel Defense Forces Chief Benny Gantz, succeeded in forming a government, leaving the country in political limbo with an embattled Netanyahu at the helm.
Israeli President Reuven Rivlin on Thursday called it a “miserable political situation” and begged the Israeli leadership to find some form of compromise.
Israel now enters into uncharted and dangerous waters. Its current prime minister has been indicted on criminal charges, while the country may be plunged – for the third time in seven months- into political chaos.
But all of this chaos is strategic: Netanyahu maintains control of the country’s political stalemate because he has so far refused to resign from his post, and by keeping his government in flux, he can stagger the legal process along.
What happens to Israel?
- Lior Mizrahi/Getty Images
Israel’s political future is as murky as Netanyahu’s legal future – and both remain haplessly tied to one another.
Netanyahu has refused to resign from power, despite repeated elections which have lessened Israeli confidence in the political establishment and dwindling support from the Israeli public over the prime minister’s legal woes. A poll by the Israel Democracy Institute found that 53.5% of respondents said Netanyahu should immediately step down as leader of his Likud Party.
Ofer Kenig of the Israel Democracy Institute told Business Insider that a strange scenario may play out for the first time in Israel’s history: A parliamentary majority of at least 61 members of the 120-seat Knesset – Israel’s parliament – may ask the president to place his faith in the hands of an individual politician. They have 21 days to make this request.
If the president receives the request, the politician will be tasked with forming a coalition within two weeks. If he or she cannot do so, new elections will be called.
If the president does not receive a request, the current government will be dissolved and new elections will be called.
According to Kenig, Israeli law dictates that the “default” option is for new elections to be called, though Israel’s political system is currently in chaos, so a “default” option may no longer be so clear-cut.
But both major political parties, Netanyahu’s Likud and Gantz’s Blue and White, could still put aside their political differences and form a national unity government, according to Kenig, though both parties have previously dismissed the idea. Netanyahu could also be replaced as head of the Likud Party, making a coalition between the opposing Blue and White an easier solution.
What happens to Netanyahu?
As the country’s political institution scrambles to find a solution its electoral turmoil, Netanyahu’s legal fate remains in the balance – in part due to the mess he helped create.
Trump’s closest foreign ally had hoped that an election win would allow him to stay in power even in the event of a criminal indictment.
There is no current law requiring Netanyahu to step down now that he’s been indicted, though previous leaders who found themselves in similar situation resigned before charges were even handed down.
In the coming months, Israel’s political system will attempt to navigate a situation that has never played out before in its 71-year history.
Netanyahu now has 30 days to request immunity from the Knesset in order to avoid criminal trial, according to Haaretz. If he does not do so in the allotted time, legal proceedings against him will begin.
The Knesset’s House Committee will decide whether to approve his request and will leave the final decision to a general Knesset vote. The problem is, no new House Committee has been appointed since Israel’s ill-fated April election – meaning, there is currently no government body in charge of making this decision, which works precisely in Netanyahu’s favor.
This political deadlock means that the process of deciding whether to grant Netanyahu immunity could take months or even years. As a consequence, the court will not be able to go forward with hearings related to Netanyahu’s cases, and the current government is effectively “frozen” and is unable to pass any new laws.
This may buy Netanyahu more time to figure out a new strategy. New elections may see Netanyahu elected yet again despite his impending legal battle. As prime minister, he may attempt to pass legislation that could somehow grant him immunity, as he tried to do earlier this year. Should he win another election he might even be able to strike some kind of deal with his partners that would allow him to resign in exchange for immunity, according to The Washington Post.
“All of the questions that we are dealing with now are new questions for Israel,” Suzie Navot, a professor of constitutional law at the Striks School of Law in Israel, told The Washington Post.
One thing is certain: Netanyahu will not go down without a fight, whatever the cost may be
- Lior Mizrahi/Getty Images
Regardless of what the future brings, Netanyahu has refused to go down without a fight.
The contentious politician will likely continue serving as prime minister until he’s replaced or convicted, according to The Times of Israel.
And in a defiant 15-minute speech on Thursday, he claimed that the charges against him were part of “an attempt to stage a coup,” and promised to continue his grip on power – even if that means dragging the entire country down with him.
“I will continue to lead this country, according to the letter of the law,” he said. “I will not allow lies to win.”
Natan Sachs, Director at the Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institute, wrote last year that as Netanyahu approaches the end of his reign, he wants desperately to write his own ending, regardless of the cost.
“Netanyahu will not go so easily, no matter the charges or evidence. If his term ends in the coming year it will be because he is forced to: most likely his partners eventually force him to resign, or the voting public opts for someone holding a broom.