Israel: Bye-Bye Bibi

Date first published: 7/1/2019

Key sectors: all

Key risks: political stability; security

With just over three months until Israel’s early elections on 9 April, Benjamin Netanyahu, informally known as Bibi, has called on the men accusing him of graft to face him publicly. Such a call is intended to imply that Netanyahu has nothing to hide, but realistically he has nothing to lose. On 24 December the Knesset passed three votes that officially dissolved the Knesset, triggering early elections and beginning the campaign period. Many were surprised by his reversal of position. In November 2018 Bibi stated that early elections would undermine the “sensitive security period” after a ceasefire with Hamas prompted the resignation of defence minister Avigdor Lieberman, leaving Netanyahyu with a two-seat majority in government.

This backpedalling was triggered by a combination of events.  In December, three corruption cases were filed with the Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit, a man unlikely to cede under Likud pressure (despite threats purportedly from Netanyahu himself). Secondly, a deadline loomed for drafting ultra-orthodox men into the army, which would have triggered Haredi coalition partners to quit and leave Netanyahu with a minority in parliament until November 2019. Thirdly, Netanyahu’s Likud party dominates Israeli politics – Netanyahu with Likud has been the singular choice for almost a decade. A successful election welcomes Netanyahu’s 10th consecutive year in power and his fifth term, having also held the premiership from 1996-1999. Opposition over 10 years has been weakened and now does not have time to consolidate in advance of 9 April. As if on cue, on 1 January, the leader of the Zionist Union (ZU), the main opposition to Likud, announced that the coalition would eject Tzipi Livni and her party over internal rifts. The declaration was a humiliation for Livni and as unexpected by the ZU themselves as it was beneficial to Netanyahu. Early elections also delay the announcement of the US’ Palestine peace plan, initially touted for January 2019. The “sensitive security period” allows for the leverage of ethno-nationalist rhetoric.

Thus elections are imminent. Likud anticipates Mendelblit’s decision to indict which risks embarrassing leaks from the investigation. An arcane law permits a potential defendant to ask the Knesset to grant him immunity from prosecution on bad faith or discriminatory charges. Thus, the ball is now in the AG’s court – he must indict Netanyahu mid-campaign and face allegations of discrimination and democracy tampering, or delay until the election when, if Netanyahu wins, he will face charges as a popular recently elected law-maker. It is also thought that upon renewal of his premiership, Netanyahu will introduce a new mandate to help him avoid said corruption charges. Either way, Netanyahu has announced that he would not resign from office should he be indicted.

Should disparate oppositional groups decide to form a large coalition, Netanyahu may still be overthrown, but no leader wants to be second fiddle. Naftali Bennet, the minister making up Netanyahu’s majority, has defected to form a new party, Hayemin Hehadash with Ayelet Shaked, potentially splitting Likud’s right-wing vote. Other opposers seem to hope that rather than having to beat Bibi in elections, the AG will indict him. This is a risky hope against a man who may still be proved to have used his power for means more nefarious than pure. But in the absence of large parties and given Israel’s convoluted parliamentary system, Likud party strategy may once again prove dominant.