Netanyahu’s Endless Quest

21 Mar 2021

Netanyahu’s Endless Quest

Israelis will vote in their fourth election in two years on Tuesday, but there is already talk of a fifth election later this year. They will just have to go on voting until they get it right.

‘Getting it right’, in this context, is electing a stable coalition government led by Binyamin Netanyahu that is willing to pass a law granting him immunity from prosecution for corruption.

‘Bibi’ has been prime minister of Israel for a total of fifteen years, and continuously in office for the past twelve years. He has been under investigation since 2016 for breach of trust, accepting bribes, and fraud. His trial began in 2019, and might well last until the end of this year.

Under Israeli law, a prime minister can remain in office even while he is being tried. The evidence against Bibi looks pretty strong, however – and if and when he were found guilty he would have to step down and might well go straight to jail.

His best bet, therefore, would be to get the Knesset (parliament) to pass a law granting him immunity so long as he is in office. Then it wouldn’t matter what the court decided, so long as he stays in office (and he’s only 71).

If Netanyahu could just give the coalition government orders, then it would automatically vote in the Knesset to grant him immunity and all his legal troubles would go away. Alas, quite a few members of Bibi’s coalition, while they back his government in general, won’t do that.

Israel’s electoral system takes the principle of proportional representation to extremes: any party gaining 3.25% of the national vote gets places in the 120-seat parliament. In the current election thirteen parties will probably win at least four seats each – and the largest party, Netanyahu’s own Likud Party, is forecast to win only 29-32 seats.

So forming a coalition is something like sewing a patchwork quilt, and each prospective partner has different priorities that must be catered to. In three elections since April 2019 Netanyahu has successfully formed three majority coalitions, but in no case without including some party that refuses to vote to grant him immunity from prosecution.

The centre of gravity of Israeli politics has been drifting rightward for decades, probably as a result of ruling over a large disenfranchised population in the occupied Palestinian territories, but the right is perpetually divided between secular nationalists and various flavours of religious conservatives.

Even centrist groupings like Benny Gantz’s Blue and White Party can end up in Netanyahu’s coalitions. In the last one Gantz was actually ‘alternative prime minister’, scheduled to take over in October and be prime minister for the second half of the coalition’s term. Netanyahu scuttled that coalition and called another election because he couldn’t afford to leave office.

“How easy it is to dismiss the attorney-general and cancel the trial,” Gantz tweeted on Saturday night. “This is Netanyahu’s scheme – and only I and Blue and White in the Knesset will prevent him from doing it.” But Gantz’s party is no longer a major player (minor parties come and go often in Israeli politics), and his warning about Netanyahu just dismissing the attorney-general and cancelling the trial is probably inaccurate.

It would still really take a parliamentary vote to give Netanyahu immunity, so the hunt for the magic coalition that will deliver that vote continues. It may well continue into a fifth election later this year – one more roll of the dice before the court’s verdict comes down.

The latest opinion polls suggest that the outcome this time will make it hard to build either a pro- or an anti-Netanyahu coalition. Naftali Bennett’s right-wing Yamina Party will probably hold the swing seats, but Bennett’s desire to replace Netanyahu may outweigh his wish to see a right-wing coalition in power.

The best outcome for Netanyahu would certainly be a coalition all of whose members were willing to vote him immunity from prosecution, but once again that probably is not on the cards. Much more likely is an outcome that lets him form another coalition like the last three, willing to back him in the Knesset but not to give him a ‘Get Out of Jail Free’ card.

And of course he could end up out of office, which would not be good for him at all. Within the past dozen years former prime minister Ehud Olmert served sixteen months in jail on quite similar charges, and former president Moshe Katsav did five years of a seven-year sentence for rape. Israel’s politics are sheer chaos, but its legal system works fine.
To shorten to 650 words, omit paragraphs 9 and 11. (“The centre…conservatives”; and “How…inaccurate”)