Read the Second Installment of our Faculty and Student Insight Series!

On November 19, the CJC launched its new blog series featuring insights from CJC professors and students. Maddox Angerhofer (SFS ’22) and Professor Moran Stern expounded on the future of Israeli politics after the expiration of Benny Gantz’s mandate to form a new government. In the second installment of the series, Angerhofer and Stern explore the implications Prime Minister Benjamin Netenyahu’s indictment, as well as a potential “post-Netenyahu era.”

What Happened

On December 21, the day after Benny Gantz’s deadline to form a government expired, the Israeli Attorney General, Avichai Mandelblit, announced his decision to indict Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on three counts.  These indictments, the first ever of a sitting Prime Minister, came after three years of investigation and in the midst of significant political uncertainty, as the country awaits a successful government formation by the Knesset (the Israeli parliament) or through another round of elections, which, if necessary, will most likely take place in March 2020.  

On the first two charges, Case 1,000 and Case 2,000, Netanyahu was indicted for fraud and breach of trust.  Case 1,000 involved Netanyahu receiving upwards of about $150,000 in gifts of luxury goods, such as bottles of champagne and cigars, from various businessmen in exchange for preferential treatment and advancement of their private interests. In Case 2,000, Netanyahu discussed with one of Israel’s largest media tycoons an arrangement in which Netanyahu would successfully pass legislation annulling the free distribution of a rival newspaper in exchange for positive portrayal in the tycoon’s media. While Netanyahu did not accept the bribery, he did negotiate the terms of the offer – as audio recordings of the meetings have shown.  

On the final and most serious charge, Case 4,000, Netanyahu was indicted for bribery, fraud and breach of trust.  He and members of his immediate family conveyed frequent requests for a positive portrayal of themselves and the blackening of Netanyahu’s political adversaries to another media conglomerate owner. In exchange, the Prime Minister offered to exercise his position of power to advance telecommunications regulation to the benefit of the owner.

In response to the Attorney General’s announcement, Netanyahu publicly accused Israel’s law enforcement and legal establishment of being corrupt and biased.  He called the decision to indict him an attempted coup, arguing that it is in fact the investigating team who should be investigated.

The Forecast

At this juncture, Netanyahu has three primary options.  He could try to get immunity from the Knesset.  To receive immunity, he would need the approval of the Knesset House Committee of the parliament.  Such a decision would be difficult, due to the current status of the transitional government which does not have active committees. Also, the Attorney General cannot file the indictment with the court before the Knesset reaches a decision over Netanyahu’s immunity status, a process which can start only after a new government is formed.

A second option would be to wait until he goes to trial and argue for his innocence in court. Should Netanyahu be proven guilty, he may face imprisonment.  The option of a court trial, however, would not play out for quite some time, especially given the possibility of elections where Netanyahu is likely to head Likud’s list. The final option would be a plea deal whereby Netanyahu is removed from office permanently but serves reduced to no jail time. 

What (or Who) to Watch

Israel may be entering the post-Netanyahu era, but this shift will not come quickly.  Netanyahu will fight the indictment all the way, working tirelessly to refocus the public’s attention on what he calls a disordered, conspiratorial, politically motivated investigation.  The Attorney General has stated that he will follow Israeli law in regard to Netanyahu’s continued service as Prime Minister. Unlike a minister or member of the Knesset, the Israeli Prime Minister can remain in office until there is a final court decision, even after an indictment. 

The indictment has major implications for the two largest parties, Likud and Blue & White.  In Likud, some had hoped that internal unrest would result in a change in leadership. However, the majority of the ministers have rallied around Netanyahu, potentially prioritizing their leader’s political survival over the viability of their party and, crucially, Israel’s rule of law.  The one exception is Gidon Sa’ar, who sees himself as the next leader of Likud. He attacked Netanyahu’s rhetoric against the law enforcement authorities and called for immediate primaries to contest Netanyahu’s leadership. There may also be a shakeup within the right wing bloc as a whole, if the other right wing parties turn away from their commitments to Netanyahu, although this option seems unlikely in the short term

The main objective for Benny Gantz’s party has remained to divide Netanyahu from Likud.  If Netanyahu were replaced as the party leader, the chances of Blue & White forming a coalition partnership between themselves and Likud will increase, thereby breaking the stalemate that has kept the government of Israel in limbo.

In Conclusion

Politicians on both sides view the groundbreaking indictment – as well as Netanyahu’s attack of Israel’s law enforcement authorities – as a sad and embarrassing moment, indicative of the high degree of polarization within Israeli society and politics.  Netanyahu’s legal status and political conduct has become the center of this division that has impeded numerous attempts to form a government with majority support.

Maddox Angerhofer is a sophomore in the School of Foreign Service majoring in international politics, studying Jewish Civilization and Persian. She is also a member of the Georgetown lightweight women’s rowing team. Maddox is from Durham, New Hampshire. Moran Stern is a PhD candidate in Political Science at the University of Maryland, College Park and a Graduate Fellow in Advanced Israel Studies. Since 2012, Stern has been teaching courses at the Center for Jewish Civilization on Israel and the contemporary Middle East.