Israel's Netanyahu has been indicted – but he isn't going anywhere

The country's longest-serving PM is also the first to face indictment while still in office. What next for the Israeli politics?

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It was clear from Benjamin Netanyahu's response to the announcement of criminal charges against him that he isn't planning on going anywhere. “I deeply respect the justice system in Israel,” the prime minister declared, looking tired but picking up energy throughout a 17-minute televised speech. "But you have to be blind not to see that something bad is happening to police investigators and the prosecution. We’re seeing an attempted coup by the police with false accusations." 

It was "with a heavy heart" that attorney general Avichai Mandelblit had announced on Thursday evening that he would be indicting Netanyahu on charges of bribery, breach of trust, and fraud in three separate cases. The news came at the end of a week where everything seemed to happen at once in Israeli politics. Only the previous day, Benny Gantz, leader of the Blue and White party, had returned his mandate for forming a coalition to President Reuven Rivlin, after failing in the task. Gantz's attempt followed Netanyahu's own unsuccessful try after Israelis went to the polls on 17 September. That election was the second in the space of six months – a first for the country – after lawmakers voted to dissolve the Knesset when Netanyahu failed to form a coalition following April's elections. On Wednesday, it seemed highly likely that Israel would be set for a third round in the space of a year, beating its own record. The Knesset has 21 days to find another candidate brave enough to attempt to build a coalition by the deadline of 11 December. As lawmakers scrambled, Mandelblit's announcement shook the political system.

Netanyahu's response to the charges was replete with rhetoric familiar to Israelis, though the addition of a coup to the litany did take things up a notch. He blamed the justice system for a "tainted" investigation. He blamed the media. He blamed a shadowy leftist deep state for trying to take down his right-wing government. He painted himself as a victim of political persecution. With a Trumpian flourish, he repeatedly tweeted "Investigate the Investigators". Mandelblit, his former cabinet secretary, was appointed by Netanyahu.

Such accusations have been Netanyahu's calling card since investigations first launched in 2016. The police recommended indicting Netanyahu in December last year. On Thursday evening, it was clear he was firmly back in election mode.

From his detractors, there were calls for him to resign.“There is no coup in Israel, but rather those that have barricaded themselves in power,” Gantz said in a statement. Netanyahu's address “clearly demonstrated that he must step down from his position and focus on the charges against him". The Labor Party said it would petition the High Court to remove him from office. In an editorial, the left-wing Haaretz newspaper declared it was time for him to go. 

On the whole, his allies appear to be standing behind him, but cracks are beginning to appear. Various members of his loyal Likud party defended his innocence last night, repeating his contention that the investigation against him was “tainted". Some senior Likud lawmakers did not comment, however, and Israeli media quoted a number of party officials speaking off the record against the prime minister. The only open challenge to Netanyahu came earlier that day from Gideon Sa'ar, his long-standing rival who many see as the future of Likud. Sa’ar said that the party needs to hold leadership primaries, something that has not happened since 2014.

Members of the 55-member strong right-wing "bloc", which Netanyahu has led through this round of coalition negotiations, also seemed to have his back. Ultra-Orthodox party Shas said in a statement that he still had its support. Naftali Bennet, who Netanyahu made defence minister last week, reportedly said Netanyahu "does not deserve this after dedicating his whole life to Israel". 

This week has demonstrated once again that the only constant in Israeli politics is its unpredictability, but a third election still looks likely. There is no way Blue and White can form a unity government with Netanyahu now or even Likud in its current form. The political turmoil has taken a major toll on a deeply divided country, grown ever more divided by the populist, damaging rhetoric of its sitting interim prime minister. When not railing against a left-wing establishment that is out to get him, Netanyahu has been lambasting Arab members of Knesset as a fifth column, terror-supporting existential threat in order to torpedo any hopes of the Joint List, an Arab-majority slate, supporting a minority government led by Blue and White. This was one of the many constellations on the table throughout the coalition negotiations. 

In the meantime, the country itself is crumbling under the weight of nearly a year under a transition government. Israel has no budget approved for 2020, and has not had a permanent police chief for the best part of a year. 

Israel’s political turmoil and the leadership vacuum left due to Netanyahu's distraction by the legal proceedings against him has effects beyond Israel, too. Only this month, Netanyahu led the country to a sudden confrontation with militant groups in Gaza. The timing was questioned in some quarters for its political convenience. In September, Israel had also come close to a major escalation in Gaza, too, just before the second election. And earlier this week, Israel said it had struck Iranian and Syrian positions in Syria after rocket fire on Israel. A US statement this week declaring that Israeli settlements are “not per se inconsistent with international law”  was hailed as a victory by Netanyahu, and was politically convenient, too. Though largely symbolic, it certainly does nothing to help restart the long-moribund peace process with the Palestinians. 

Netanyahu’s insistence on staying is no surprise for any Israeli. He has been prepping the ground since the probe against him was announced, and since he failed to form a coalition following the April vote. Under Israeli law, a prime minister must stand down if convicted, but there is no obligation on him to move aside before that, although ministers must relinquish their offices if indicted and Netanyahu currently holds additional portfolios. There will be plenty of chances for him to drag out the process. The trial itself could reportedly start in mid to late 2020, but who knows how it could be delayed before that. 

In the meantime, Netanyahu – who now has the dubious honour of being not only Israel's longest-serving prime minister, but also the first to be indicted while still in office – will do everything he can to hold on, or avoid trial, even if that means tearing apart what’s left of the democracy he purports to believe in and lead. “The feeling of righteousness and justice burns inside me,” he said last night. “I will not let the lie win.”

Alona Ferber is Special Projects Editor at the New Statesman.