Awaiting Trial, Netanyahu Mulls Options as Opposition Moves to Oust Him
After falling short of securing parliamentary majority, prime minister faces significant hurdles – and a fourth election could be right around the corner
With the votes counted from Israel’s third election in less than a year, Prime Minister and Likud leader Binyamin Netanyahu’s right-wing and ultra-Orthodox bloc – which includes the Yamina party, United Torah Judaism and Shas – won 58 seats in the next parliament, shy of a majority in the 120-member body.
The tally is technically unofficial, as reported voting irregularities must still be investigated at some two dozen polling stations, although the Central Elections Committee said it did not expect any shifts in the overall results.
The Likud party garnered 36 mandates in Monday’s contest, compared to 33 for its chief competitor, the Blue and White list led by former military chief Benny Gantz. Given the margin of victory, the incumbent, under normal circumstances, would almost certainly be given the first opportunity to form a government.
These are, however, exceptional times due to Netanyahu’s legal issues, which remain the major wild card and have placed him on a likely collision course with the Supreme Court. Earlier this week, the Movement for Quality Government in Israel filed a petition with that body arguing that Netanyahu should not be allowed to head the next coalition.
While an Israeli prime minister under indictment is not legally required to step down unless convicted of a crime and having exhausting all avenues of appeal, the question of whether an Israeli leader can be tasked with forming an entirely new government has never been adjudicated.
“A lot of people whose opinions I respect believe that the Supreme Court would not be able to uphold such a petition unless there was a law [already on the books],” Dr. Amir Fuchs, head of the Defending Democratic Values Program at the Israel Democracy Institute (IDI), told The Media Line.
“Personally, as things stand, I do not think the Supreme Court would intervene… [as the judges would conclude] that they do not have the authority to do so. Recently, the court has been more conservative and prudent,” he noted.
Enter the political opposition. Blue and White officials on Wednesday confirmed that they were working to get at least 61 lawmakers to support legislation that would prevent an indicted prime minister from forming a new government.
Such a measure would require the backing of a Center-Left political union – Labor-Gesher-Meretz – in addition to the Joint List, a predominantly Arab alliance that made ousting Netanyahu one of its central campaign themes.
On Thursday, Avigdor Liberman, head of the ultra-nationalist, unabashedly secular Israel Beitenu party, dropped a bombshell and announced that he was on board despite having reportedly nixed a similar plan by Blue and White following the inconclusive September election.
For his part, Netanyahu, whose trial on corruption charges in three separate cases is slated to begin March 17, responded by accusing Gantz of attempting to steal the election.
“This is an effort to divide the nation when we are facing serious challenges,” the prime minister said at a rare press briefing. “There are also opportunities like US President Donald Trump’s [peace] plan that require us to be united and respect the will of the people.”
There are, in fact, concerns that such a move so soon after the vote will be viewed by large swaths of the public as undermining the democratic system. And even if such a bill is passed by the next Knesset – which is slated to be sworn in within two weeks – the courts would again most probably be induced to weigh in.
“So long as there is no explicit law to prevent Netanyahu from receiving the mandate, it is reasonable to assume that the Supreme Court would reject a petition preventing him from serving,” Kobi Sudri, an expert in criminal law, told The Media Line.
“This is why [Blue and White] is seeking majority support [in the Knesset] to change the law. If this occurs, I see no reason why the Supreme Court would then overturn the parliamentary decision. This would effectively cut out the need for the legal establishment to alone make such an important determination,” Sudri said.
Indeed, perception, in addition to legalities, will be a mitigating factor in what happens moving forward.
“While I think there should be a law that prevents a prime minister under indictment from serving, to pass [what is defined in Israel as] a ‘personal law’ at this juncture would be very anti-democratic,” the IDI’s Fuchs said in reference to Blue and White’s machinations.
A personal law is one that serves the interest of a select politician or a group thereof, instead of the national interest.
“If the law [being contemplated] were to apply to future governments – and not this upcoming one – then this would be okay, even if this means there would need to be another election,” Fuchs said.
If Netanyahu one way or another is barred from continuing in his post, most analysts predict the emergence of a so-called unity government between the Likud – led by someone new – and Blue and White, in all likelihood under a rotating premiership. Liberman would also presumably be in the fold when considering his decisive role in preventing Netanyahu from forming a coalition following the two previous elections.
In the interim, Gantz could attempt to form a minority government, though Joint List leader Ayman Odeh on Wednesday reiterated that he would not provide outside support for any coalition in which Liberman is a minister. And it is highly unlikely that the Israel Beitenu boss would agree to any arrangement that does not give him control over a major ministry.
Moreover, Odeh has made clear that backing Blue and White is contingent on Gantz agreeing to forego the annexation of any West Bank territories under the Trump Administration’s peace plan.
Had Netanyahu’s right-wing/religious bloc won a majority, speculation was rampant that the prime minister would have pushed through a bill granting himself immunity from prosecution. This, too, might not have passed the legal acid test.
Nevertheless, the scenario cannot altogether be ruled out even though Netanyahu’s ability to cobble together a ruling coalition is looking slim, as it hinges on courting another political party or, as rumors to this effect continue to circulate, plucking “defectors” from rival factions.
The latter option would have been more plausible if Netanyahu’s bloc won 60 seats, as exit polls initially had predicted. Within the current political environment, swaying three lawmakers to “change teams” is being viewed as a long shot and thus a serious obstacle to the prime minister remaining in power.
With so many moving parts, the eventual composition of Israel’s first non-transitional government since December 2018 is unknowable. This reality, coupled with the legal, legislative and, of course, political complexities, has prompted some analysts to suggest that a fourth election could, conceivably, be right around the corner.