Despite police investigations into alleged misconduct, analysts believe bigger threat is coalition instability
Hovering over Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s head like a Sword of Damocles are two police probes into alleged corruption, known respectively as Case 1000 and Case 2000. In the former, the premier is suspected of having accepted (or perhaps demanded) expensive gifts from supporters in exchange for political favors; whereas the latter involves a scheme in which Netanyahu purportedly attempted to curry positive coverage from the Yediot Aharonot newspaper in return for limiting the circulation of rival daily Israel Hayom.
Police had been expected to provide recommendations to state prosecutors this month as to whether or not to indict Netanyahu, but authorities now say the investigations will only be completed in April. This effectively pushes back any final decision by the attorney general until early 2019, only months before national elections scheduled for November.
It seems virtually certain, then, that “King Bibi”—a moniker of affection often shouted by his loyalists rather than opponents’ pejorative—whose mantra has become, “there will be nothing because there is nothing,” will not be dethroned by corruption accusations during this calendar year, if at all. And, according to Israeli law, he would not be required to resign from office unless found guilty in what would inevitably be a lengthy trial.
Accordingly, the most immediate threats to the Israeli premier’s nearly decade-long tenure may be internal. In fact, divisions within the governing coalition were made stark as parliament’s winter session kicked off, with serious grievances being aired over legislation such as the “minimarkets bill,” which would give the Interior Ministry—now in the hands of the Haredim, or ultra-Orthodox—authority to overrule local bylaws determining which stores are permitted to remain open on the Sabbath.
Other points of contention include legislation that would require approval by a super-majority of lawmakers to divide Jerusalem in the context of a peace agreement with the Palestinians, and which also would permit the government to unilaterally redraw the city’s municipal boundaries to exclude various Arab-Palestinian towns across the separation barrier. A prospective vote on a new Basic Law—statutes assigned the designation which Israelis argue collectively stand in place of a formal Constitution—is liable to cause further kinks in the coalition’s armor; this, in addition to a bill, that already passed a stormy first out of three readings/votes by the legislature, enhancing the ability of military courts to hand down the death penalty.
According to Dr. Gidon Rahat, a Professor of Political Science at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem and a Senior Fellow at the Israel Democracy Institute, while the postponement of the police recommendation may indeed factor into Netanyahu’s calculations, the more pressing matter is the instability of his government. “The functioning of the coalition is already problematic and every day we here about breaks in discipline and additional pressures,” he told The Media Line, “so unless Netanyahu finds a way to calm things down, it will be difficult for him to [stay the course]. The possibility for elections this year is becoming realistic. [In fact], it would take an emergency scenario, like a war in Gaza, to stop the momentum.”
Nevertheless, Dr. Rahat elaborated, “I think if Netanyahu does call for a vote, the investigations could have an impact. While his hardcore base will be even more motivated [as it views the corruption probes as illegitimate], those that sit on the fence between parties will find it more difficult to vote for [Likud].”
By contrast, Aviv Bushinsky, a former senior adviser to Netanyahu, believes that the Israeli premier will complete his term, thereby surpassing David Ben-Gurion as Israel’s longest-serving premier. “I do not see early elections happening for two reasons: first, the other parties in the coalition have no incentive to go to a vote as they have nothing to gain. Also, the Labor Party would likely not be excited to have elections before it can stabilize under its new leader, Avi Gabbay, who won the leadership vote less than a year after joining the party. Second,” he explained to The Media Line,” in order to call for an early vote, Netanyahu needs a good excuse and this does not exist today like it did when he [initiated the 2015 elections] over the Israel Hayom legislation [which would have banned the tabloid because it is distributed for free].”
Moreover, Bushinsky continued, “Even if the evidence against Netanyahu will be so harsh, greater than what we know of today, I believe the Attorney General will give him a way out, to let him leave office quietly in order to ease tensions.” On the other hand, he concluded, if Netanyahu is indicted, it would likely mark the end of his political career as “it would be too hard for the public to support him and, moreover, his probable coalition partners—primarily [Kulanu leader Moshe] Kahlon—would be remiss to join a government he leads.”
Despite the fluctuating speculation, most agree that the government is, indeed, coming to a crossroads. As a result, Netanyahu may soon have to decide whether to double-down on a fractured and fragile coalition and invest the political capital necessary to pass numerous controversial laws; or, instead, take his chances at the ballot box, running the risk that a potential indictment could derail his campaign in a vote that will no doubt be hotly contested.
Given the inherent chaos of Israeli politics, though, the premier’s decision, and, significantly, its timing, may end up not being much of a choice at all.