Netanyahu Probe and the Court of Public Opinion
Netanyahu's political future hangs in the balance after police officials
recommended to the attorney general on February 13 that he be indicted on two
separate cases involving bribery, fraud, and breach of trust. In one case, the
prime minister is accused of accepting $280,000 worth of gifts from individuals
in return for advancing their interests. In the other, he is accused of taking
steps to weaken one newspaper in return for favorable coverage in another.
minutes of the move, Netanyahu appeared on national television to dismiss the
allegations, stating that the police are biased against him and reminding
viewers about his long record of military and government service. In response,
critics argued that he was undermining a key law enforcement agency. The speech
is a sign that Netanyahu realizes his political fate may rest with the court of
public opinion even if his legal fate winds up in the hands of the courts.
POLITICIANS AND POLLS
various members of Netanyahu's governing coalition, including some of his
rivals, must now decide whether to stay or bolt. With politicians keeping a
close eye on the polls, how the public internalizes the severity of the
allegations could become very relevant. It is unclear whether Israeli opinion on
Tuesday's announcement will be swayed by two other pending cases linked to
Netanyahu. For now, police say he is not an official target of their probe into
the most financially lucrative case, which involves corruption allegations
related to his brother-in-law's role as a lawyer in the government's purchase of
German submarines worth up to $2.5 billion.
most prominent colleagues and rivals—including Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon
and Education Minister Naftali Bennett—say that they will not take a stand on
the matter until Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit decides whether to indict.
Such noncommittal statements have fueled speculation that political leaders are
waiting to see how the public reacts, though Bennett subsequently chided
Netanyahu for taking gifts from American billionaires.
the author's recent visit to Israel, it was clear that Netanyahu's political
associates had been carefully planning for this situation amid widespread
anticipation of a negative police recommendation. One top advisor admitted that
Kachlon, a vocal proponent of clean government, was the prime minister's
wobbliest supporter. Kachlon leads 10 of the 67 members in Netanyahu's
coalition, which controls the 120-member parliament by a slim margin. According
to the advisor, Kachlon pledged last month that he would not bring down the
government based on a police recommendation alone, though he pointedly refused
to give assurances about how he would react if Mandelblit leaned toward
indictments. His wavering is no small matter given his well-known desire for the
government to complete its term, giving him enough time to fulfill his 2015
campaign pledge on lowering the cost of apartments for young families.
LEGAL AND POLITICAL TIMETABLES
law mandates that Netanyahu would be entitled to a hearing if Mandelblit makes
an initial recommendation to charge him in either case; the indictment would not
be formalized until after the hearing. The prime minister's political advisor
and other close associates believe he would probably be forced to step down if
said hearing does not go well. Yet his team is clearly counting on the fact that
the entire process could take as long as a year—nearly the same amount of time
his government has before finishing its term and facing mandatory elections.
public reaction could speed up the process, however. Yoaz Hendel, a columnist
who once worked for Netanyahu, has said that the people will not allow
Mandelblit to delay the cases given their heightened interest in the matter.
opinion could affect Netanyahu's calculations as well. His February 13 statement
suggested he will continue doing his job "faithfully and responsibly,"
but if his advisors believe the people are largely supportive, he would not rule
out preempting potential indictments by calling for early elections as a show of
political force to the legal establishment. In their view, the question of
whether the alleged $280,000 in gifts actually affected Netanyahu's decisions
remains a gray zone, so they are hoping this uncertainty will sway Mandelblit, a
former senior aide to the prime minister. Yet this kind of political calculus
might be clutching at straws.
thing is clear: Netanyahu has been the great survivor of Israeli politics, and
if he remains in power until next year, he will be the longest-serving leader in
the country's history. He may be counting on the widespread perception that he
has yet to groom a successor; indeed, he has fallen out with various top
officials in recent years, including Gideon Saar and Moshe Yaalon. He seems
determined to persevere even if rivals to his right (Bennett) and left (Yair
Lapid and Avi Gabbay) pick up points in the polls at his expense.
size and durability of any point changes will be closely scrutinized by
politicians and the public alike. A poll taken immediately after the police
recommendation indicated that 48 percent of respondents want Netanyahu to
resign, a decrease from the 60 percent tallied in response to a similar question
in December. Although Netanyahu may take solace in that decrease, instant polls
are often unreliable, and even if the latest one is accurate, 48 percent is a
THE OLMERT PRECEDENT
also appears to be counting on the fact there is no explicit provision for an
indicted prime minister to step down. In 1993, Israel's Supreme Court ruled that
cabinet ministers have to step down if indicted, but the situation is more
complex in the case of a premier, whose departure would presumably trigger the
resignation of the entire cabinet.
should be recalled that when a similar situation arose in 2008—the year Prime
Minister Ehud Olmert stepped down amid corruption charges—it was not a legal
requirement that forced him out. Rather, it was the strident role played by
Defense Minister Ehud Barak, who said that the allegations made it untenable for
Olmert to remain in office well before any indictments were issued. So far, no
equivalent of Barak has emerged in the current government, though Netanyahu
himself strongly condemned Olmert after the police recommended indicting him in
2008, declaring, "He does not have a public or moral mandate to determine
such fateful matters for the state of Israel when there is the fear—and I have
to say it is real and not without basis—that he will make decisions based on
his personal interest in political survival and not based on the national
the wake of this week's announcement, observers may question whether Netanyahu's
decisions on matters of war and peace will be affected by his personal legal
situation. As it turns out, he has been famously risk-averse on such matters
throughout his tenure. Since his first round as prime minister in 1996, he has
largely avoided using ground troops in battle (with one exception—when he
feared Hamas had been tunneling into Israel during the Gaza war of 2014).
addition, the Israeli parliamentary system differs from the American
presidential system in that it gives the security establishment a more prominent
role in military decisionmaking. For instance, if the situation
in Syria escalates following last weekend's incidents between
Israel and Iran, any major decision from Jerusalem would require full
involvement of the military and inner cabinet, not just Netanyahu.
As for U.S. policy implications, Netanyahu will no doubt rely even more heavily on his right-wing base to maintain support during this period, which could make him more vulnerable to pressure on issues of concern to them (e.g., unilaterally annexing the West Bank settlement of Maale Adumim). Therefore, the notion of making progress on the Trump administration's moribund peace plan is now even more far-fetched, especially at a time when the Palestinians are boycotting U.S. officials. Regarding Iran policy, Netanyahu will surely continue urging President Trump to either "fix or nix" the nuclear deal, though the actual impact of his exhortations remains uncertain.