The situation Israel has been facing for several months now is unprecedented in many respects. For the first time in its history, the country has been run for one year by a transition government. It means that it can only handle day-to-day affairs, and that a new budget cannot be voted for. The Knesset is idling and the country is paralyzed, while the situation gets out of hand in many public sectors like the hospital sector, and would require the implementation of emergency plans, and of numerous investments.
In November 2018, Netanyahu had called for the dissolution of the Knesset, hoping to win the early elections in April and to obtain from his future majority the immunity he needs in order to protect himself from the predictable legal proceedings on the cases he was under investigation for. He failed and, unable to gather a majority, he preferred to call for a second dissolution of the Knesset, thus preventing Benny Gantz, leader of the Blue White list, to take a chance and try to form a government.
In September, Netanyahu did not succeed either to get a majority, and this time Gantz had the possibility to do it, but he also failed. It was sort of an impossible mission, since on one hand, Orthodox parties remained true to their allegiance with the Likud, and on the other hand, Avigdor Lieberman, leader of his list Israel Beitenu, vowed to support only a government of National Union gathering the Likud and Blue White—which was impossible because of the antagonist positions of the two main lists.
Therefore, for the first time since 1948, President Rivlin was compelled, as required by law, to give a mandate to the Knesset in order to try and find a solution during 21 days. During that time, any deputy who would succeed in gathering 61 signatures can offer to form a government (we note that each deputy will be free to vote for whomever he wants, without taking into account his party’s). But this scenario is currently unlikely, because of Netanyahu’s indictment and of his refusal to step down.
As a matter of fact, since November 21st, a legal crisis comes on top of that political crisis. The Attorney General of the State pronounced himself on the three cases Netanyahu is sued for: he indicted him for fraud and breach of trust in those three cases, and indicted for corruption in one of them. It is the first time a Prime-Minister-in-Office is indicted for corruption.
In 2008, when Prime Minister Ehud Olmert had been investigated for corruption, he had chosen to resign in order to prepare his defence. It should be noted that the then leader of the opposition, namely Benyamin Netanyahu, declared that Ehud Olmert had to resign “because we may fear, for the right reasons, that he will take decisions according to his private interests without taking account of the public interest“. Olmert was condemned, and served a prison term of sixteen months (after a remission).
Instead of following these recommandations to Olmert on his own behalf, Netanyahu chose to accuse the justice system and the police system of intending to do a coup against him, while as Prime Minister, he should be the representative of their legitimacy. He required “the investigators to be investigated“, qualifying them of “dishonest…led by external elements“, knowing that such statements could lead to attacks against the judges in question who had subsequently to be placed under police protection. Then he called his electorate to demonstrate in order to support him. But the demonstration organized on November 27th in Tel Aviv gathered between 5000 and 7000 people at the most, in spite of the means put in place to convey people from the whole country — and the Likud MK chose to absent, except for three of them.
Netanyahu has 30 days, starting from the Attorney General’s statement, to ask the Knesset to grant him immunity; but he clearly will not get it. Israel will probably have to go a third time to the polls next March.
All the opinion surveys show that this perspective does not have public support. It would cost the State and the Israeli economy several billions of shekels, since the election would be hold on a Non-Working day. In order to avoid it, the only way would be either for another candidate to become the leader of the Likud, or for at least one of the Orthodox parties to join the center-left block led by Gantz. For the time being, none of those two scenarios seems likely to happen. Of course, Gideon Saar, one of the most credible postulants as Netanyahu’s successor, is running for the leadership of the Likud and asked for primaries to be organized very soon. But Netanyahu, who was previously opposed to it, says he is ready to do it…in six weeks—which dismisses any possibility of having a National Union government in the short term, and requires the holding of a third electoral round.
The main political actors started to campaign in order to convince the public opinion that they are not responsible for all that. According to a recent poll from the Israeli Democratic Institute, 43% of Israelis think that Netanyahu is the only one responsible for this state of affairs, 37% consider that Lieberman is responsible for it, and 7% accuse Gantz. But the other polls reckon also on a relative stability of both blocks, in case new elections were held today. The Blue White list can certainly win a few mandates, but it would be at the expense of the lists of the left (Labour Party and Democratic Union) and the political system would still be blocked.
The only way to get out of that deadlock would be for another candidate to take the leadership of the Likud. But the polls show that Netanyahu remains the most popular leader : a list led by him would get 33 deputies. It explains the silence of the “Barons” of the Likud (Gideon Saar excepted) after Netanyahu’s serious accusations against the judges and the policemen who investigated on him. A list led by Saar would get 26 deputies, the other votes going to the lists of the right and of the extreme right.
Conclusion: One man has been trying for a year to block the life of a whole country, in order to avoid facing justice. Faced with that unheard of situation, the political world and the medias are in an uproar. Serious questions arise. Can a Prime Minister indicted for corruption lead a transition governement ? And if he were to win new elections, could the President give him a mandate to form a government ? These are all questions whose answers will determine the nature of the Israeli democracy in the next few years.