Early election timing likely more to do with graft-dodging than draft-dodging

Netanyahu apparently decided last week to call the snap poll, just as the State Prosecution was handing his corruption probes over to the attorney general for a final decision

Raoul Wootliff

Raoul Wootliff is a former Times of Israel political correspondent and Daily Briefing podcast producer.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu delivers a statement in Tel Aviv, November 18, 2018, saying he will take over temporarily as defense minister, as early elections loom. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu delivers a statement in Tel Aviv, November 18, 2018, saying he will take over temporarily as defense minister, as early elections loom. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)

Monday’s announcement that Israelis would be heading to the polls in April of 2019 came in the form of a joint statement from the heads of the coalition parties, but there was no hiding who was really behind the decision.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s unchallenged political master, had called the meeting of coalition heads, coordinated with each of them beforehand, and presided over the discussion on his proposal for early elections.

The chairmen of the five parties voted unanimously to dissolve the Knesset and hold elections within four months, but, coalition sources told The Times of Israel, Netanyahu had decided on the move “long before Monday.”

Speaking on condition of anonymity, a senior Kulanu party source said that the move did not come as a surprise. “He made a decision last week and knew that he was going to go ahead with it now.”

A Jewish Home party spokesperson, confirming that party leader Naftali Bennett had not been in Monday’s meeting due to a prior engagement, said Netanyahu had contacted the education minister earlier in the day to inform him of the decision and ensure he would back it.

The predetermined nature of the decision sheds light not just on who was behind the move, but also on what the real motivations may have been, or at least what they were not.

Not yet conscripted

Netanyahu called the meeting on Monday in an ostensible last-ditch attempt to resolve an impasse over contentious legislation regulating military draft deferments for members of the ultra-Orthodox community. Without an agreement, his government could not last until November, 2019, when elections were formally scheduled.

The ultra-Orthodox Shas party was backing a proposed bill on the matter. and had reportedly said it would leave the government if the bill did not pass, while a faction within the United Torah Judaism party said exactly the opposite, threatening to leave if it did pass.

But despite the opposing ultimatums, Monday was not first time that the impasse had come to light, nor was it the last opportunity to solve it.

Yes, the Supreme Court last year threw out a law exempting ultra-Orthodox men engaged in religious study from military service, on the grounds that it undermined the principle of equality before the law. And without a new law, conscription would automatically apply to everyone.

But earlier this month, the court granted the government a further month and a half to pass the bill, extending an early December deadline to January 14, 2019.

Ultra-Orthodox Jews protest outside the army draft office in Jerusalem on December 13, 2018. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Had Netanyahu wanted, there were at least three options before him other than calling elections: using the remaining three weeks to find a workable compromise; letting the deadline pass with no new legislation; or pushing through the bill with the support of the opposition Yisrael Beytenu, which reiterated on Monday that its MKs would vote in favor.

In declining those options and choosing early elections, Netanyahu was likely aiming to secure political promises from the ultra-Orthodox for their cooperation once he is returned to office, as he confidently declared Monday he expects to be.

An early poll may also pre-empt diplomatic pressure, given that the Trump administration has been readying to present its peace plan, and this may now be delayed.

But if anything pushed him over the edge, it was likely a legal challenge, not a political or diplomatic one.

Not yet indicted

It seems no coincidence that the Kulanu source who claimed Netanyahu had wanted elections said that the prime minister actually made up his up mind “last week.”

For it was last Wednesday when State Prosecutor Shai Nitzan announced that he had finished deliberations on the three corruption cases in which Netanyahu is a suspect, reportedly recommending to indict the premier on bribery charges over at least one of the cases, Case 4000, in which Netanyahu is accused of kicking back regulatory favors in exchange for positive media coverage.

Also late last week, reports emerged that Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit was set to begin this week reviewing the case files to decide on possible charges against Netanyahu, embarking on the most high-stakes stage yet of Netanyahu’s several-year legal entanglement.

Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit attends a State Control committee meeting in the Knesset on December 3, 2018. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Of the cases in which Netanyahu is suspected of illegal activity, the one known as Case 4000 is considered by the State Prosecutor’s Office to be the most serious, according to Israeli television reports.

In that case, Netanyahu is suspected of having advanced regulatory decisions, as communications minister and as prime minister from 2015 to 2017, that benefited Shaul Elovitch, the controlling shareholder in Bezeq, the country’s largest telecommunications firm, in exchange for positive coverage from Elovitch’s Walla news site.

In another affair, Case 1000, Netanyahu is suspected of receiving benefits worth about NIS 1 million ($282,000) from billionaire benefactors, including Israeli Hollywood producer Arnon Milchan, in exchange for assistance on various issues.

A third case, Case 2000, involves a suspected illicit quid pro quo deal between Netanyahu and Yedioth Ahronoth publisher Arnon Mozes that would have seen the prime minister hobble a rival daily newspaper, the Sheldon Adelson-backed freebie Israel Hayom, in return for more favorable coverage from Yedioth.

Netanyahu’s Likud defenders have repeatedly retorted, since police called for indictments in February, that the cops’ recommendations have no legal standing at this stage, and only a decision by Mandelblit to press charges could force the prime minister out of office.

With news that Mandelblit was now on the case, Netanyahu may well have realized that time was running out for his mantra of “nothing will happen because nothing has happened.”

It’s not clear how long it will take Mandeblit to make a decision on whether to charge Netanyahu in any of the cases. Last Thursday, he said that “we will work quickly, but not at the expense of the investigation. We will not pursue any one person, only justice.”

According to Justice Ministry sources, Mandelblit aims to reach a decision around mid-April.

Shaul Elovitch arrives at the Tel Aviv Magistrate’s Court for a remand hearing in Case 4000, February 26, 2018. (Flash90)

That makes the April 9 date now set for elections curiously convenient for the prime minister, potentially pre-empting criminal charges that could sink his re-election hopes.

Even if a decision from Mandeblit were to come earlier, an election campaign would probably delay any legal proceedings until after a new government was sworn in. While numerous police investigations of public officials have been carried out in the lead-up to elections, Israel’s attorney general has never indicted a politician running for office in the midst of a campaign.

The Justice Ministry late Monday denied reports carried in Hebrew-language media that the decision would be delayed, saying Mandeblit’s “orderly and professional” review of the Netanyahu investigations would continue apace, though no final date was set for a decision.

Not yet beaten

Netanyahu would not comment Monday on whether the timing of the vote was connected to the corruption investigations against him. But opposition MKs were adamant that this was the reason.

Israel is going to elections because the prime minister is facing possible indictment for corruption, said Yesh Atid MK Elazar Stern, for example. “Make no mistake.”

But while an election would delay an indictment, it’s not clear how it could put it off all together.

“He wants to try and pressure Mandelblit to drop charges. He thinks an winning an election will increase the pressure,” said Barak Medina, a constitutional law professor at the Hebrew University.

“But I don’t think [Mandelblit] will cave even if Netanyahu wins big,” Medina said. “At most, [Netanyahu] could give himself some breathing room to mount his legal challenge.

Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, left, and Avichai Mandelblit at a cabinet meeting on January 4, 2015. (Marc Israel Sellem/POOL/Flash90)

In the wildly popular HBO fantasy show “Game of Thrones,” accused lawbreakers are given the option of a traditional trial in front of judges, or a “trial by combat” — where they are deemed innocent if they succeed in a fight to the death against a chosen opponent.

Someone willing to to look death in the face and come out successful, so the show’s mythology claims, is worthy of having his sins forgiven.

Winning an election would not exonerate the prime minster. It would not annul the state’s witness deals signed against him. It would not undo the police recommendations. And it would most likely not persuade the attorney general to forgo charges.

But, like a trial by combat, it could prove to the public, and to himself perhaps, that Netanyahu, still a political master, was not yet beaten.

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