On Nov. 21, Israel Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit announced the filing of criminal charges against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for fraud, breach of trust and bribery in three government corruption cases. Never has a sitting Israeli prime minister been indicted. If he is convicted of bribery, he would almost certainly go to jail.
Also unprecedented is that two elections this year – in April and again in September – ended inconclusively, with neither Netanyahu nor main challenger Benny Gantz, the leader of the Blue and White party, able to form a government coalition among the nine party factions that made it into the Knesset. That has put Israel in a situation that it has never faced, but that is provided for in the law.
The law gives any Knesset member the opportunity to garner the support of a majority in the Knesset. If that doesn’t happen by Dec.11, however, Israelis will head to the polls for the third time in a year – probably on March 3.
You might think Israel is falling apart, but it’s not. I think it’s a sign of the strength of Israel’s democracy that things are functioning normally, but the country is on autopilot, a situation that cannot last indefinitely. It’s bad enough that there is a caretaker government with limited powers – essentially a holdover from before April, with Netanyahu at its helm – but with the indictment announcement, Netanyahu’s authority as a practical matter is curbed that much further.
I have made it clear I am no fan of the prime minister. I have been waiting for this moment for some time in the hope that Netanayhu, who has been in office for too long and has pursued policies that have not served the country well, would step down or be removed from office.
Netanyahu is innocent until proven guilty, as the attorney general noted in announcing the indictment. Criminal proceedings will take time, and by law, the prime minister cannot be forced to resign until a final conviction following an appeal.
There has been concern that Netanyahu would attempt to obtain immunity from prosecution while in office, either through legislation or in a Knesset committee vote, but I find that unlikely. Netanyahu is a spent political force.
And from a more practical standpoint, Israel deserves a prime minister whose full attention is directed at running the country rather than one whose uppermost concern is staying out of jail. Even the most skilled and focused prime minister would have a full plate of pressing issues facing him or her, including an economy that is showing signs of a slowdown and rising tensions with Iran.
Israel also deserves a prime minister who does not seek to undermine the rule of law for his own personal gain, something that Netanyahu has clearly attempted to do. An hour after the indictment announcement, he went on television railing against the investigators in the cases against him and calling for an “investigation of the investigators.” In true Trumpian style, he also called the case against him an “attempted coup.”
In his first campaign as head of the Blue and White party, Gantz had praise for some of Netanyahu’s contributions to the country, but suggested it was time for him to move on. “We’ll take it from here,” Gantz said. The remarks resonate that much more powerfully now. Whether Netanyahu is ultimately succeeded by someone from his own Likud party or by Gantz, someone else needs to take it from here.
Cliff Savren is a former Clevelander who covers the Middle East for the Cleveland Jewish News from Ra’anana, Israel. To read more of Savren’s columns, visit cjn.org/savren.