For the first time in Israeli history, a sitting prime minister has been indicted: Benjamin Netanyahu.
Attorney General of Israel Avichai Mandelblit announced on Thursday night that Netanyahu is being officially indicted for bribery as well as the lesser but still serious charges of fraud and breach of trust.
Netanyahu now faces a lengthy trial, at the end of which he could face 10 years in jail for the bribery charge alone.
Attorney General Mandelblit used particularly harsh language in his announcement, accusing the premier of having “damaged the image of the public service and public trust in it,” as well as “taking a bribe as a public servant in exchange for actions related to your position.”
An ashen and desperate-looking Netanyahu gave a response straight out of the Donald Trump playbook, accusing the attorney general’s office of engaging in a “witch hunt” and a “coup attempt.”
Turning his fire against the law enforcement institutions, he called to “investigate the investigators and the state prosecution which cooks these infected cases.”
In the first case against Netanyahu, known as 1000, the premier received gifts and benefits from billionaire benefactors in exchange for policy favors.
The indictment charges him with “receiving benefits connected to [his] public positions totaling over 700,000 Israeli shekels (ILS = 200 USD) and acting in favor of businessman Milchan while in a severe conflict of interest.”
In the case known as 2000, the prime minister is accused of wheeling and dealing with the editor of the largest daily newspaper at the time (2014-15) over the circulation of a paper under his nominal control in return for more favorable coverage.
Netanyahu is being indicted for fraud and breach of trust in both of these cases.
The more serious indictment was handed down in the 4000 case, wherein Netanyahu is accused of granting political benefits to a communications mogul worth $500 million at the expense of the public good in exchange for favorable coverage in an internet site he owns.
The indictment accuses Netanyahu of taking benefits “while knowing you were taking a bribe as a public servant in exchange for actions related to your position.”
These actions were “carried out amid a conflict of interests, the weighing of outside considerations relating to his own and his family’s interests, and involved the corrupting of the public servants reporting to him.”
The decision does not automatically remove Netanyahu from his position as outgoing prime minister: according to Israeli law, removal from office is only mandatory if the premier is found guilty of an offense.
However, the Supreme Court has forced ministers to resign in similar situations in the past and may rule similarly against a prime minister in order to safeguard proper governance and protect the rule of law in Israel.
Eyes on the right
All eyes are now on the right-wing bloc which has held steady in support of Netanyahu so far.
The first sign of an uprising was former interior minister and longtime Likud rival Gideon Sa’ar declaring hours before the indictment announcement that “the right and necessary thing to do is to set up a timetable for Likud leadership primaries. That’s what the Likud constitution says.”
He added that he was more suitable than Netanyahu because he “will be able to form a government and unite the country and the nation.” Michal Shir, a Likud MK, has already stated that she would support Sa’ar.
According to Kan Radio, yet another unnamed member of the Likud plans to announce a challenge to Netanyahu in the near future.
The other right-wing parties have so far been waiting to see which way the wind blows.
Avigdor Liberman, whose Yisrael Beiteinu party is the linchpin, was notably vague, saying the opportunity should be given for Netanyahu “to prove his innocence in court.”
The former defense minister declined, however, to comment on his future political status.
The ultra-orthodox and national religious parties have thus far been suspiciously quiet. To follow Netanyahu would lead them down an increasingly perilous and self-serving path.
To seek to form a new government would come at Netanyahu’s expense, and potentially their political peril.
Everything to lose
Netanyahu, Israel’s longest-serving prime minister on his fifth term, is not finished yet, as there remain logistical obstacles to serving the indictment.
The premier now has 30 days to submit an immunity request to the Knesset. However, the relevant committee has yet to be appointed due to the gridlock in the Israeli government since the first elections in April of this year.
Unless the committee debates the issue and passes it on for a vote in the full chamber of the parliament, the indictment cannot be served to the courts. If a committee is not appointed soon, the process could be seriously delayed, particularly if new elections are called.
The Knesset may also grant Netanyahu immunity for some of the charges and not others.
If immunity is granted, the attorney general or other qualified bodies may (and certainly will) appeal the decision to the Supreme Court.
The prime minister may also appeal a decision to deny him immunity.
In addition to the potential of losing the premiership, the indictment forces Netanyahu to give up his other ministerial portfolios. He is currently health minister, welfare minister, and diaspora minister.
All in all, considering the severity of the charges and Netanyahu’s political weakness, it seems unlikely that he would successfully obtain immunity. Nonetheless, the attempt may be time-consuming and generate further political uncertainty.
According to Israeli law, a period of 21 days will now begin wherein any member of Knesset who can obtain the support of a majority of members will be able to form a government.
In theory, this means that “Bibi” can form a government. However, State Prosecutor Shai Nitzan reportedly believed that Netanyahu will no longer be able to receive the mandate to form a government due to the criminal charges against him.
Both Netanyahu and his main rival Benny Gantz, who declared Thursday “a sad day for the State of Israel,” have thus far failed to form a governing coalition.
The coming three weeks are certain to be chaotic as a wounded Bibi tries to shore up an increasingly unhappy right-wing camp while an exasperated public looks on.
Blue and White member Avi Nissenkorn has announced that he will attempt to gain 61 MK’s to support a government under Gantz. If they can round up enough defectors, the Israeli political gridlock may finally be resolved.
“The Netanyahu era is over,” the head of the left-wing Meretz Party said in the wake of the indictments on Thursday.
Ayman Odeh, the head of the Arab United List party that has sought to carve a greater role for Palestinian citizens of Israel, offered a warning: “The hatred and racism that [Netanyahu] has spread will not disappear with him to Maasiyahu prison.”