Several senior Likud lawmakers have reportedly been meeting behind the scenes in a bid to try and oust Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu following the attorney general’s explosive Thursday announcement that he will indict the Israeli leader in three corruption cases.
According to a Channel 12 TV report on Friday, which did not cite sources, the senior Likud officials are convinced “the Netanyahu era is over” and are working to try dethrone him as head of the party within the current 21-day period allotted for the Knesset to agree on a prime minister before Israel would be forced to go to new elections.
Channel 13 reported similar backroom talks, with one unnamed person saying: “We are trying to figure out how to wrest the party from his hands.”
The Channel 12 report said the top Likud members know that the only way they will be able to topple Netanyahu, who has held an iron group on the party for more than a decade and populated it with loyalists, will be to unite behind one candidate, but they are showing no sign of being able to do so.
After September’s elections, and failed efforts by Netanyahu and rival Blue and White leader Benny Gantz to muster a majority, the Knesset has three weeks to find a prime ministerial candidate who enjoys the support of 61 MKs. With kingmaker Yisrael Beytenu saying it will not support a narrow government of any kind, and the indictment announcement seemingly killing off any chance of Blue and White agreeing to share power with Netanyahu, a new national poll — the third in less than a year — appears all but inevitable.
But the unnamed senior Likud MKs now hope that they can wrest control of the situation and they are reportedly conducting polls to see who has the best chance.
The Channel 12 report did not name the Likud MKs involved, but noted the “deafening silence” of several top figures like Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein, Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan and Gideon Sa’ar, who announced a bid to challenge to Netanyahu earlier this week.
The TV report rated the chance of the move succeeding as low, noting that it would be difficult for the members of the senior Likud hierarchy to set aside their egos and agree on a new leader.
Channel 12 analysts said it would take a dramatic plunge in the polls, or a ruling from the attorney general that Netanyahu was barred from heading a government, to unite the pretenders to his throne.
Both Channel 12 and 13 reported, without giving sources, that Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit intends to rule that Netanyahu need not resign as prime minister at this stage, but he will have to relinquish the four ministerial posts he currently holds. As of today, Netanyahu holds the agriculture, health, social affairs and diaspora affairs portfolios. According to legal precedent, a minister cannot continue to serve under indictment.
Channel 13 said that several Likud MKs have said they would refuse to serve as ministers in these posts as it could taint them in the future.
Earlier Friday, the Ynet website quoted unnamed legal officials as saying the attorney general would likely issue a legal opinion as early as next week, ruling that although the prime minister is not compelled to give up his position due to the indictment, there are “significant legal difficulties” in him receiving a mandate to form a new government under the circumstances.
This would mean that the attorney general — who is both the head of Israel’s state prosecution and the government’s chief legal adviser — would not necessarily be able to defend Netanyahu being tasked with forming a coalition if petitions were made to the High Court of Justice.
In the past, the same phrase of “significant legal difficulties” used by attorney generals in other legal opinions regarding the appointment of senior officials facing legal difficulties was enough to convince Netanyahu to thwart their selection. This was the case regarding Yoav Gallant, who was a nominee for IDF chief of staff in 2010 and Moshe “Chico” Edri, who was tapped to serve as police chief last year.
Though the law technically allows a prime minister to remain in power so long as a final court ruling convicting him has not been given, that law has never actually been tested before — as Netanyahu is the first leader in Israel’s history to face criminal charges while in office — and the courts will likely be compelled to debate the issue.
The Justice Ministry said in a statement that Mandelblit “has not yet dealt with the various consequences of the decision to file an indictment, and has certainly reached no decision in the matter. Any reports on the matter are speculation and the sole responsibility of those reporting.”
Despite the reports, Netanyahu received public backing from several Likud leaders earlier in the day.
Foreign Minister Israel Katz, a key figure in Likud who had remained silent after the indictment was announced on Thursday, said Friday morning he supported Netanyahu.
“Israel is a state of law and the presumption of innocence is the right of every person, certainly of Prime Minister Netanyahu,” he stated. “So long as there is no legal objection to Netanyahu serving as prime minister he is permitted to remain in his job, and only the public and its representatives in the Knesset will decide democratically who will lead Israel.”
Science Minister Ofir Akunis too said Friday morning that Netanyahu should be presumed innocent until proven otherwise. “From my 25-year acquaintance with him, which has known its ups and downs, I give my support to the prime minister and appreciate even more so his contribution over many years to Israel.”
Despite overseeing the Justice Ministry which issued the charge sheet, Likud’s Amir Ohana indicated that he believed the prime minister was innocent of all charges.
“Benjamin Netanyahu is not a corrupt man,” Ohana said in a statement posted to Twitter. “I’m proud to stand by him at this moment… and completely confident that the test of history will prove it’s the correct side to stand on.”
“We are being tested,” Tourism Minister Yariv Levin, Netanyahu’s coalition talks negotiator, said in a Facebook post.
“The state of Israel owes Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu a great debt. Netanyahu has devoted his life to this country and to its defense. The injustice done to him tonight cries out to high heaven,” he declared.
He called on fellow Likud members “to come together. We will keep our ranks united and continue as one to fight for our principles and our truth, and we will win.”
Culture Minister Miri Regev defended Netanyahu’s presumption of innocence and said police and state prosecutors “cannot be immune from criticism and above the law.”
Likud MK Miki Zohar said “millions of people in this country were deeply moved” by Netanyahu’s statement.
Communications Minister David Amsalem, a Netanyahu ally, tweeted simply, “We won’t let the lie win!”
The announcement did not include the official filing of an indictment, as the Knesset must first decide on lifting Netanyahu’s procedural immunity, a process that — due to the current political gridlock and the lack of a functioning government — could drag on for months.
Mandelblit, in a rare address to the media announcing his decision, called it “a difficult and sad day” and said his ruling was made “with a heavy heart but also with a whole heart.