Netanyahu holds Israel hostage

Blue and White party leaders rejected the proposal made by President Reuven Rivlin for power-sharing, as they do not trust Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to keep his part of the deal.

al-monitor A reflection of Blue and White election banners depicting party leaders Yair Lapid and Benny Gantz is seen on a building in Tel Aviv, Israel, Sept. 16, 2019.  Photo by REUTERS/Corinna Kern.

Sep 27, 2019

What can be done about Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu? Israel’s entire political system and, as a result, the entire country itself is being held hostage by the prime minister. If he agrees to step down of his own volition, in a matter of minutes the country would break free from its current deadlock. The Likud would then be able to form a unity government with the Blue and White party, including a rotation agreement between Blue and White leader Benny Gantz and whoever takes over from Netanyahu. On the other hand, as long as he insists on clutching at the proverbial altar and holding on as tightly as he can, everything is stuck at a standstill.

As described here in an earlier Al-Monitor article, President Reuven Rivlin took the crisis on himself and launched a dramatic initiative that could have offered a creative solution. His proposal had Netanyahu and Gantz forming a coalition government with rotation. Netanyahu would serve first as prime minister, but under warning that as soon as he is indicted, he would become incapacitated. This would require the Basic Law of Governance to be amended quickly, and the term "incapacitated" would be redefined so that it could last for an unlimited amount of time. At the same time, the position of deputy prime minister would be defined by law as someone with all the authority of a serving prime minister in the event the prime minister is incapacitated. These changes would allow Netanyahu to continue serving as prime minister if indicted, with the title and all the dignity that comes with it, while Gantz would assume all the authority of the prime minister and effectively manage the state as long as Netanyahu’s trial continues. Once Netanyahu’s term is over, the rotation would take place and Gantz would assume the title of prime minister too, while Netanyahu would become deputy prime minister, but with none of the authority.

When Rivlin stood up in the President’s House Sept. 25 to describe his proposal to the press, Netanyahu stood there to his right, nodding. The event was incredible if not inconceivable. What Rivlin was describing was Netanyahu’s de facto descent from the political stage (unless a miracle happens and his lawyers are able to convince Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit to close the cases against him in the hearing scheduled for Oct. 2). Netanyahu was signaling that this is worth talking about, while the Blue and White party described Rivlin’s proposal as a “non-starter.”

Gantz did ask for time to discuss the proposal with his partners in the Blue and White party leadership, but he faced overwhelming opposition there.

Senior Blue and White member Yair Lapid argued that one cannot believe a word Netanyahu says. Lapid said it was all a ruse, intended to keep Netanyahu on as prime minister in perpetuity. He also reminded his colleagues that the party had promised never to sit with him, saying it was now incumbent on Blue and White leadership to keep that promise. Other Blue and White seniors Moshe Ya’alon and Gabi Ashkenazi agreed.

The possibility of a third round of elections no longer seems so ridiculous after all. This horror scenario may have seemed inconceivable on the eve of September’s election, but now it is rapidly gaining ground. Rivlin was forced to grant Netanyahu the mandate to try to form the next government, knowing that his chances of succeeding are slim at best. Netanyahu is putting enormous pressure on Labor-Gesher party leader Amir Peretz, and he even sent unofficial envoys to Yisrael Beitenu leader Avigdor Liberman with a rotation proposal. The chance of this actually happening, however, is practically nonexistent.

After April’s election, Netanyahu used all the time at his disposal (28 days, with a 14-day extension) to try and form a coalition. This time, he plans to return the mandate to the president much more quickly. The reason for this is because the clock is ticking quickly and ominously on the criminal charges against him even as the political drama unfolds. If Mandelblit acts quickly, as he promised to do, and decides to indict Netanyahu as early as this November, Netanyahu could find himself leading the Likud into the next election while he is under indictment for a crime. It would be the first time in all of Israel’s history this has ever happened. According to several legal commentators, even if Netanyahu wins that hypothetical election, Rivlin would be unable to task him with forming a government. While it is true that the law allows a serving prime minister who has been indicted to continue to serve until sentencing, Netanyahu would be receiving the mandate to form a government as a regular member of the Knesset and not as prime minister of a transition government. The political, criminal and legal entanglement is so unprecedented that no one in Israel knows how to get out of it.

The pressure now lies on the shoulders of the Blue and White party’s leadership and on Gantz in particular. If it was all up to him alone, he may well have accepted the president’s proposal and formed a rotation government with Netanyahu based on a mutual agreement that Netanyahu would step back as incapacitated once he is indicted. But Gantz is bound by his promise to his voters and to his partners in the leadership “cockpit.”

For almost a generation, Netanyahu has convinced large parts of the Israeli population not to believe a word that comes out of his mouth. Now he is reaping the fruits of this negative effort. No one believes he will really step back as incapacitated once he is officially accused of a crime. Conventional wisdom is that he is busy preparing some ruse typical of him, or he will reject the hearing’s findings and file a case against Mandelblit with the Supreme Court, or even that he will ask the Knesset to grant him immunity (and there is a reasonable chance he will get it) so that he can avoid a trial. Alternatively, he could dismantle the whole deal at the moment of truth and send Israel galloping toward a new round of elections. Netanyahu being Netanyahu, he will not leave the house on Balfour Street of his own volition.

The question is whether some way will be found to get him out of there and extract Israel from the swampy mire into which it is quickly sinking. One option is a revolt in Likud. Netanyahu will fail to form a government, and then, after the hearing and the leaks, his limp will become much more pronounced. Once this happens, his rivals in the Likud party leadership will start plotting against him and call for quick primaries to decide on the party’s next leader. Procedurally, this is entirely possible. The chairman of the Likud’s Central Committee is Minister Haim Katz. He could summon the Central Committee quickly and put the idea of a primary up for a vote. Netanyahu is busy suppressing plots like this and imposing his terror on the people behind them. The real question is whether their fear of Netanyahu will begin to fade away at some point and, if it does, whether the top Likud leadership can unite to show Netanyahu the door. We will find out in November.

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