For Netanyahu, early elections may be an easily won trial by combat

Israelis may find themselves at the polls in the next few months due to a coalition crisis that some claim is being orchestrated by the PM

Raoul Wootliff

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

This March 18, 2015, photo, shows a Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu election campaign poster lying among ballot papers at his party's election headquarters in Tel Aviv. (AP/Dan Balilty)
This March 18, 2015, photo, shows a Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu election campaign poster lying among ballot papers at his party's election headquarters in Tel Aviv. (AP/Dan Balilty)

If the threats of coalition partners are to believed, Israel is on its way to new elections, and soon.

Over the past week, with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu facing intensifying accusations of corruption in five separate cases he appears to be implicated in, ultra-Orthodox coalition parties have threatened to vote down the 2019 budget unless legislation is approved exempting members of their community from the military draft.

In response, Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon has threatened to quit his post if the budget isn’t passed by next week, and Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman has insisted his party will not fold to the demands of the ultra-Orthodox.

Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon (FL) speaks to Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman (FR) at the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem, November 20, 2016. (Emil Salman/Pool)

Before leaving Israel on Saturday for a five-day trip to Washington and New York, Netanyahu told reporters, “There is no reason for us to go to early elections, and with good will that will not happen.”

He predicted the government would survive through November 2019, when elections are currently scheduled to be held.

By Tuesday he appeared less optimistic, with senior government sources close to the prime minister saying he wasn’t interested in a short-term, partial fix, and could seek a snap vote if a long-term solution was not found.

“Netanyahu’s goal at the moment is a government that serves its term to the end,” a source told Hebrew news outlets. “There is no point in a government that will fall apart in May. Therefore, without an agreement that guarantees the government’s longevity, there is no choice but to go to elections.”

Several of Netanyahu’s coalition partners have claimed he is in fact behind the gridlock, and opposition lawmakers have accused him of trying to precipitate elections to save himself from the corruption probes.

Here are a few reasons why they may be right and why, if so, Netanyahu doesn’t want the public to know.

1. Netanyahu could probably solve the coalition crisis if he wanted to

Failure to pass a state budget by the end of March would normally automatically bring down the government. But with the 2018 budget approved months ago, Kahlon is demanding that the 2019 fiscal plan be approved before a six-week Knesset recess begins March 18, a move with no apparent immediate urgency.

The same is true of the ultra-Orthodox demands. 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. Without a new law, conscription would automatically apply to everyone, but the court said the government has until September to re-legislate the law.

Chairman of the Finance Committee, Moshe Gafni (R) and Health Minister Yaakov Litzman attend a Finance committee meeting at the Knesset in Jerusalem on September 6, 2016. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Some observers have suggested that Netanyahu has entirely manufactured the crisis, having already promised both Kahlon and the ultra-Orthodox parties a place in his next coalition if they help him spur elections. Others, including the head of the United Torah Judaism party, Yaakov Litzman, say that the standoff is real but Netanyahu is making no effort to end it.

If Netanyahu wanted, several coalition members say, he could ask Kahlon to ease his self-imposed deadline or promise the ultra-Orthodox leadership a vote on a compromise conscription bill immediately after the budget passes.

On the face of it, the so-called crisis appears fairly easy to solve, at least with enough political will from Netanyahu.

2. Accusations not going away, but elections could delay indictment

Netanyahu may have escaped his legal troubles this week for the duration of his visit to the United States, but his problems are not going anywhere, with police still pursuing five separate corruption probes linked to him.

They have recommended indicting him for bribery, fraud and breach of trust in two of those probes, accusing him of involvement in six different different fraudulent schemes. And in the other investigations, several of his closest aides and allies have been arrested, with two loyalists turning state’s witness against him in recent days.

Police investigators arrive at the prime minister’s resident in Jerusalem to interrogate Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, March 2, 2018 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

His Likud defenders are right in their retort that the recommendations and ongoing probes have no legal standing at this stage, and only a decision by Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit to press charges could force the prime minister out of office. But Netanyahu’s mantra of “there will be nothing because there is nothing” seems to have been crushed by the weight of the accusations, and many observers predict that Mandelblit will, eventually, have no choice but to indict.

An election campaign, however, would likely 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 during a campaign.

That could give Netanyahu an additional half-year of breathing room to garner public support and mount a defense against the potential indictments.

3. Netanyahu would likely win an election

Despite the corruption allegations, polls taken since the police recommendations have shown a small but steady increase in support for Netanyahu’s Likud party. The most recent surveys give the party 29 Knesset seats, five above its second-place rival, Yesh Atid. While the Likud currently has 30 seats in parliament, before the indictment recommendations polls showed it languishing at around 25, tied with Yesh Atid.

Netanyahu has even touted internal Likud polls that he says show the party winning as many as 36 seats.

To be clear, at the same time, polls have also shown that around half of Israelis think Netanyahu should step down over allegations of corruption. But they also show a significant retreat from similar polls published before the indictment recommendations, in which 60% said Netanyahu should resign if police recommend bribery charges and only 28% thought he should stay on.

Of course, polls taken before an election has even been announced could change dramatically, and an election perceived to be an attempt to avoid indictment may be unpopular. But while many Israelis want Netanyahu to go, it appears that the corruption allegations may have strengthened the resolve of his supporters. And that could translate to victory at the polls.

4. The Likud party has a clear campaign message

During over a year of police investigations, Netanyahu and his supporters have maintained a fairly consistent line of attack to respond to the allegations.

He has accused “shady left-wing forces” of masterminding a deep-state conspiracy against him. His allies have slammed demonstrators protesting corruption as “anti-Israel operatives.” He has labeled negative reporting of him as “fake news” and said that the media is engaged in “an obsessive witch hunt.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife Sara are seen flanked by Likud lawmakers at a Likud party rally in Airport City on August 30, 2017. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife Sara are seen flanked by Likud lawmakers at a Likud party rally in Airport City on August 30, 2017. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

The left, he and his advocates claim, has failed to vote Netanyahu out of office because of his successes as prime minister and is therefore doing its utmost to oust him with false claims of corruption.

His election campaign would likely be built around the same message, consolidated into a succinct and tangible directive: Don’t let them.

A campaign highlighting his achievements in office — particularly by playing up his role as a global force on the world stage — would attempt to both turn focus away from the corruption allegations and shore up the opinion that there is no one else who could possibly replace him.

5. Elections would put the opposition in a bind

Opposition parties, meanwhile, may struggle to form such a rallying cry. Insisting that Netanyahu cannot continue in his role as prime minister while fighting legal battles, as they have already been doing for months (even citing Netanyahu’s own arguments against Ehud Olmert), is not enough, as the polls indicate.

Labor leader Avi Gabbay, left, attending a news conference in Tel Aviv, July 11, 2017; Yair Lapid attending a conference in Herzliya, June 22, 2017. (Miriam Alster/Flash90; Jack Guez/AFP/Getty Images via JTA)

At the same time, claims of moral high ground will be met with accusations of hypocrisy toward Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid and Zionist Union chair Avi Gabbay. Already, Likud has used Lapid’s own personal connections with one of the central suspects linked to Netanyahu, and a previous investigation against Gabbay, to cry foul against their anti-corruption stances.

But a campaign that focuses primarily on policy proposals — which many say the left has failed to do for years — risks minimizing the corruption allegations by legitimizing Netanyahu as a viable candidate, and may in some respect also help him deny their importance.

Damned if they do, damned if they don’t, as it were.

6. ‘Trial by combat’

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, if they choose, 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.

Nikolaj Coster-Waldau as Jaime Lannister in an episode of ‘Game of Thrones,’ which aired August 6, 2017. (AP/HBO)

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 would prove to the public, and to himself perhaps, that Netanyahu can win, at least one last fight.

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