The saga of Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s legal woes reached a climax on Thursday evening as Attorney-General Avichai Mandelblit announced indictments on charges of bribery and breach of public trust in three cases against him.
This marks the first time in Israeli history that a prime minister has been indicted for criminal wrongdoing while serving in office.
The dramatic news comes in the midst of a national political crisis, and its impact on it will be incalculable.
On Wednesday night, Blue and White leader Benny Gantz returned his mandate to form a government, conceding that he was not able to do so. The Knesset now has 21 days to try, but now that the indictment is a fact, and not just a possibility, it could lead to a swift political realignment.
By law, a prime minister is not required to resign until or unless he is actually convicted of a crime. Technically, Netanyahu could remain in office, but the pressure on him to step down will be difficult to withstand.
Shortly after news broke of Mandelblit’s decision, the clamor for his immediate resignation erupted.
Blue and White No. 2 Yair Lapid demanded Netanyahu’s resignation: “It is not possible that anyone responsible for our children’s education system can be charged with serious criminal offenses. It is not possible for the Prime Minister to order strikes in Syria during the night and confront [state witness] Nir Hefetz in the morning.
“In particular, he may be dragging an entire country into a dangerous spin that will end in unprecedented violence and internal crisis, “Lapid said.
“Binyamin Netanyahu has spent most of his life strengthening the State of Israel. If he still cares for her, he has to do one more thing for her: resign, ” Lapid concluded.
Senior Blue and White MK Gabi Ashkenazi said: “The day that an indictment is filed against a prime minister is a sad day for the State of Israel. I hope for Netanyahu’s sake and for that of the citizens of the State of Israel that he will be acquitted but there is no doubt that he must now concentrate on his own case rather than on running the state.”
Democratic Camp’s Stav Shaffir: “Today the Netanyahu era is over. If he had a drop of honor he would resign this evening. If Likud and right-wing MKs have any respect for their constituents they would oust him. If we go to elections again or if he remains in power for another few months of shameful rule, from today on it is possible to plan for the day after Bibi. Connect the tribes, eliminate the hatred, work for tomorrow.”
Blue and White posted a video using Netanyahu’s own words against him. Speaking 11 years ago — as then-premier Ehud Olmert tried to fend off corruption allegations — in which the Likud leader said a prime minister could not function under criminal investigation.
Netanyahu says in the video: “A prime minister neck deep in investigations does not have a moral and public mandate to make fateful decisions for the State of Israel. There is a fear, I must say, and it is real and not unfounded, that he will make his decisions for his personal interest of political survival, not for the national interest.”
Arab Joint List chief Ayman Odeh, targeted along with fellow Arab MKs as a “terror supporter” in Netanyahu’s recent broadsides, looked forward to a post-Netanyahu era:
“On the day Netanyahu pays for his criminal misdeeds, we will be able to begin to repair the damage he caused with his social misdeeds. The racism and the hatred that he caused will not disappear with his behavior, and it is up to us — Arabs and Jews — to build a peace-loving society together and an equitable democracy that will serve all citizens of the country.”
Netanyahu declared his innocence in all the cases against him numerous times in recent months, and expressed confidence that once all the evidence was in, he would be completely exonerated. That confidence, if it was more than just a façade, was shattered on Thursday.
As the state prosecution said in a statement: “The attorney general’s decision on the prime minister was made after a thorough and deep examination of the numerous allegations raised by the prime minister’s lawyers during the four days of the hearing in early October 2019. All allegations were examined in depth as part of a regular work process deployed over many hours in which the State Attorney’s Office submitted in-depth reviews of hundreds of pages, relating to the allegations raised at the hearing,”
The prime minister’s actions, they said, “were carried out amid a conflict of interests, the weighing of outside considerations relating to his own and his family’s interests, and involved the corrupting of the public servants reporting to him.”
Some legal experts have commented that the option of staying in office is not so clear-cut. They cite precedents that ministers other than the prime minister are required to step down in such a situation. There is no clear legal rule regarding the prime minister.
Accordingly, he will have to relinquish the multiple ministerial portfolios he holds: he currently serves as health minister, welfare minister and diaspora minister. Until recently, he also served as defense minister and previously he also held the foreign affairs portfolio, among others.
Whatever the legalities, in the meantime all eyes will be on Netanyahu’s Likud MKs and the right-wing and religious parties in his 55-MK bloc, to see if they will continue to stand by the prime minister or work out deals with Blue and White.
An initial reaction from Likud came from MK Miki Zohar, a strong supporter of the PM:
“The first emotion I feel: great sadness,” he says in a statement. “I’m sad for the prime minister, what a ‘great’ gift the state gave him for giving his best years for us all. Everything was known ahead of time. We knew the attorney general won’t be able to withstand the pressure brought to bear on him, we knew that [State Prosecutor] Shai Nitzan would fight tooth and nail, no matter the cost, to ensure serious indictments against the prime minister.”
“We will not be silent. We will not give in.”
According to the law Netanyahu will have 30 days to ask the Knesset not to strip him of his parliamentary immunity. Due to the fact the Knesset is not really functioning this process could take a long time.
Bezeq and Walla! owner Shaul Elovitch and his wife, Iris, were also indicted for bribery and obstruction of justice in Case 4000. In addition, the owner of Yediot Ahronot, Arnon Nuni Mozes, was indicted for bribery in Case 2000.
Updated Thursday, November 21, 2019 at 3:00 pm add comments