Israeli democracy is in trouble. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has held power since 2009, has been indicted on charges of bribery, fraud, and breach of trust. Netanyahu is the longest serving prime minister in Israeli history, and is the first to be indicted while in office. Netanyahu, the leader of the conservative and right-wing Likud party, called the indictment a “coup,” though he appointed many of those involved in his prosecution. Furthermore, Israel has had two elections and has failed to form a government three times since April. A third election, utterly unprecedented in the history of Israeli politics, will take place in March. Such governmental upheaval is uncharted political territory for Israel.
Netanyahu has been charged on three separate counts. The first, Case 1000, is an accusation of bribery that carries a ten-year prison sentence upon conviction. The second, Case 3000, charges Netanyahu with breach of trust, and the third, Case 4000, charges him with fraud. Case 1000, the most dire, involves a claim that Netanyahu provided regulatory benefits to the parent company of Walla, a news organization. In exchange for these benefits, Netanyahu, along with his wife, Sara Netanyahu, received positive news coverage, while his competitors were shown negatively. Case 3000 addresses further discussions of favorable coverage with another news organization. Case 4000, the fraud charge, involves gift exchanges with Israeli expatriates as related to tax exemptions and business mergers.
Netanyahu does not have to step down as prime minister by law unless he is convicted in court. However, the third election will likely represent a direct challenge to his office anyway. Some Likud party members, particularly after the indictment, wanted to hold a primary election to oust Netanyahu and find a new standard bearer. That effort failed, and Netanyahu is positioned to remain the leader of Likud. Currently, Netanyahu and his allies within the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, seek “parliamentary immunity,” which would legally protect Netanyahu from prosecution. It is unclear whether or not their efforts will be successful.
Regardless, Likud is truly in turmoil behind the scenes. Prospects are optimistic for Benny Gantz’s centrist Blue and White party, the primary opposition party in Israel, which has gained political ground throughout the indictment process. However, there is a deadlock in parliament, meaning that no party can achieve a majority and form a coherent and functioning government at the moment. Gantz, the opposition leader, refuses to form a coalition government with an indicted prime minister like Netanyahu.
As the collective result of Netanyahu’s indictment, the struggle between Likud and Blue and White to secure a majority, and possible immunity for Netanyahu, the status quo in Israeli politics is poised to change. Though Netanyahu still leads Likud, Blue and White, emboldened by his indictment and changing public opinion, will mount a fierce challenge. Furthermore, Netanyahu’s bid for immunity represents a real threat to the legitimacy of Israeli democracy. The future depends on the third election, court proceedings, and, critically, whether politicians can lawfully be held accountable for their actions.
Netanyahu should take initiative and step down to best position Likud for the future in Israel’s democracy. Regardless of his guilt, Likud needs a frontrunner unburdened by court proceedings. The indictment has the potential to dissuade conservative voters. In a recent poll, two thirds of Israelis said that they do not believe Netanyahu can both serve as prime minister and try to clear his name. Additionally, 46 percent believe he should resign, and 17 percent say he should at least take a leave of absence. It seems that Netanyahu may view relinquishing his position as an admission of guilt, but if he wants to clear his name, he should focus solely on court proceedings. Netanyahu wants to remain in power, that much is clear, but the good of Israeli democracy and his own party requires that he step down.
A change in political leadership, within either Likud or the government itself, has the potential to revitalize the Israeli political system. The threat of rampant corruption taints the democratic process. Netanyahu should not allow Israeli politics to become mired in court proceedings as he seeks to extend his tenure as prime minister. Indictment took over two years to come to fruition; bringing the case to court will likely take longer than that. He has served his time, and should instead allow others, unburdened by indictment, to take the lead in his place.
However, it is almost certain that Netanyahu will remain prime minister, at least until March. The prime minister has called the investigation and indictment proceedings against him a “witch hunt,” signaling his intent to contest the charges in full. In a recent development, Netanyahu won 70 percent of the Likud primary vote, frustrating the efforts of Gideon Sa’ar, a younger challenger within the party. After winning, Netanyahu stated that he will “continue to lead Israel for many more years.” Furthermore, Netanyahu declared his intention to pursue immunity from corruption charges, arguing, “Immunity isn’t against democracy; it’s a cornerstone of democracy.”
That declaration is troubling at best. Netanyahu’s bid for immunity cannot be addressed until the March 2 election because the committee that would oversee his proposal is not in session. Seeking immunity is a ploy for more time. More importantly, conflating immunity from prosecution with the health of “democracy” is dangerous. The government, and more importantly, the people, must have a mechanism for holding politicians accountable for their actions under a democratic system. Subverting the rule of law and labeling it democratic necessity sets an alarming precedent for the future, and undermines the basic tenets of democracy for Israel.
The controversies in which Netanyahu is embroiled are evidence of a deterioration in Israeli governance. Furthermore, his desire for immunity from prosecution is a direct affront to democracy’s viability. Netanyahu should cede his power to Sa’ar, or whoever in his party is deemed best equipped to take over for him prior to the March election. The prime minister’s image is irreparably damaged, initially by indictment and now by his response to the proceedings, but that damage need not extend into Likud. Israeli politics should not have to focus on indictment over its primary responsibility of governance. Netanyahu can exit the political stage gracefully by prioritizing the good of his party, and the greater good of his country.
Israeli politics balances on a knife edge. It will either become fixated on indictment or undergo radical change, hopefully for the better. In any case, Netanyahu’s decisions will be telling.