What happened today?
For the first time in Israel’s history, a sitting prime minister has been indicted on criminal charges. The most serious charge is of bribery in what’s known as Case 4000, in which Netanyahu is accused of providing regulatory benefits to Israeli media tycoon Shaul Elovich in return for favorable coverage of the prime minister and his family on the popular Elovich-owned Walla! website. Elovich and his wife are also charged with bribery.
Netanyahu was also charged with two counts of fraud and breach of trust in cases known as 1000 and 2000. Case 1000 involves receiving gifts (expensive cigars, cases of pink champagne) from billionaires Arnon Milchen and James Packer. Case 2000 features Arnon Mozes, the publisher of Israel’s leading daily Yediot Aharonot. Here, like in the Elovich case, Netanyahu discussed a deal in which he’d receive favorable coverage in exchange for curbing Yediot’s main competitor—the Sheldon Adelson-owned Israel Hayom newspaper. Mozes has been charged with bribery.
The penalty for bribery can reach 10 years in prison.
What happens next?
The timeline going forward is murky, and months could pass before Netanyahu takes his seat as a defendant in Israel’s district court.
First, Netanyahu could plead for immunity. As a member of Knesset, he is entitled to immunity under a limited set of circumstances that do not cover his case. However, the process, if Netanyahu chooses to take this route, could take months, mainly because the Israeli Knesset, which is in between elections, has not set up the relevant committees to debate immunity.
Even without this process, the court caseload and Netanyahu’s battery of high-end lawyers will likely ensure that months pass before the trial begins.
Bibi isn’t giving up
In his angry and belligerent response speech on Thursday, Netanyahu made clear he feels no remorse and that the thought of stepping down, or even taking a break in order to focus on his legal battles, has not crossed his mind. Instead, Netanyahu mounted an attack on Israel’s prosecution and law enforcement top officials, stressed the need to “investigate the investigators” and vowed to continue serving as prime minister despite what he depicted as an “attempted coup.”
And, at least from a legal standpoint, he can do just that.
Israeli law does not require a prime minister under indictment to step down (in fact, it is not even clear if the law prohibits a prime minister from serving when in prison). And even though political rivals plan to ask the Supreme Court for a ruling forcing Netanyahu to give up his responsibilities until the charges are decided, there’s hardly a chance the court will intervene.
What does this mean for Israel’s political deadlock?
Attorney General Avichai Madelblit’s announcement came only a day after Israel entered into uncharted political territory. For the first time, none of the candidates vying to lead the country were able to form a coalition within the timeframe provided by the law, and unless a last-minute solution emerges within the next three weeks, Israelis will head to the polls. Again. For the third time within just over a year.
Netanyahu’s new legal status, as Defendant No. 1 in the State of Israel vs. Netanyahu, makes this political deadlock even more intractable. The vision of a national unity government, in which Netanyahu and Blue and White leader Benny Gantz share the premiership and serve in rotation, is no longer on the table since Gantz ran an election campaign focused on refusing to allow an indicted leader to serve as prime minister.
If—and this is the most likely scenario right now—Israel does, in fact, go to elections in March, Netanyahu will run a platform which he basically laid out in his speech Thursday: taking on the (allegedly) left-leaning prosecution and Ministry of Justice and fighting back against unelected bureaucrats trying (supposedly) to subvert the will of right-wing voters. (And yes, this does sound a lot like Donald Trump’s “deep state” conspiracy theories.)
But Netanyahu still has to watch his back
If there is any challenge to Netanyahu right now, it will come not from the voters or from the opposition, but rather from his own party. Gideon Sa’ar, the veteran Likud politician patiently waiting on the sidelines for Netanyahu’s fall, seems ready to make his move. Sa’ar could try to force the party to hold primaries before the next elections (which are just around the corner) in which he would run against Netanyahu for the party’s leadership. Others may feel that Bibi is vulnerable and try their hand in challenging Israel’s longest-serving prime minister.
Netanyahu’s popularity and his stronghold over the Likud make it almost impossible for rivals within the party to topple him right now.
What will it take to push Netanyahu out?
First, an acknowledgment that sticking with Bibi will lead the party to the opposition. If polling numbers show the Likud weakening and potentially losing power, members will be motivated to take action. After all, they didn’t enter politics in order to lose.
Second, a sweet deal from Gantz could be the right incentive. If Blue and White make clear it will give the Likud full parity, and maybe a little more, in a national unity government without Bibi, there may be some serious voices in the party willing to ditch Netanyahu.
The Trump factor
The parallels are almost too obvious to mention: Two leaders obsessed with their media image and facing unprecedented legal challenges, responding with an onslaught directed at the prosecution and law enforcement which, they claim, are trying to drive them out of power despite their electoral success.
In his nearly three years in office, Trump has stepped up more than once to help Netanyahu. Friendly visits, symbolic gestures and diplomatic platitudes, alongside a full-throated embrace of Likud policies by the Trump administration, helped Netanyahu convince voters that his unique relationship with the leader of the free world makes him indispensable.
But can Trump help a friend in need again?
The administration’s recent decision to reverse a decades-long policy and no longer claim Israeli settlements are illegal under international law could prove valuable further down the road, paving the way to an Israeli annexation of parts of the West Bank. But that’s not what will save Netanyahu. He already campaigned on the promise of annexation, and it is unlikely that Trump’s implicit backing will move any new voters when Bibi appeals to them again.
It will be hard to see Netanyahu shifting the agenda of the upcoming elections from his legal troubles to the future of West Bank settlements. Netanyahu will have to fight this one out based on his ability to take on Israel’s legal system. In Trump he can find a lot of sympathy for the cause, but not much real help.
Either way, the countdown to the end of Bibi’s career has started
He may survive an inner-Likud challenge, and he may even go ahead to win, or squeeze out another tie, if a third election round is called. But Netanyahu’s era is reaching its end. A year from now, he will be a man on trial, either as prime minister or as a former leader. Whether he takes the last chance off-ramp (a deal in which he resigns in return for dropping the charges) or goes on to fight, his path to victory is all but closed. Now, it’s only a question of legacy.