Netanyahu: May Be Down - But Certainly Not Out

A glimpse at the Israeli PM's legal challenges and election prospects.

The major media outlets both in Israel and the U.S. have already made the determination that Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is about to go down and should resign. That comes following intense pressure put on Israel’s Attorney General, Avichai Mandelblit to issue an indictment less than 100 days before the general elections scheduled for April 9, 2019. Mandelblit issued a recommendation to summon PM Netanyahu for a pre-indictment hearing due to alleged corruption. 

Days before Mandelblit was to announce his intention to file corruption charges against PM Netanyahu, Law Professor Alan Dershowitz, a lifelong liberal democrat, wrote an open letter to Mandelblit warning that if he (Mandelblit) were to proceed with the charges, he would “endanger democracy and freedom of the press” in Israel. Dershowitz pointed out that “Voters, not the police or the courts, should decide Netanyahu’s future.”

In his open letter to Mandelblit, Dershowitz argued:

“According to press reports, you are about to charge the Prime Minister with charges related to his relationship with the media. In my view, any such charges would, as I pointed out in the attached article, endanger democracy and freedom of the press… Such charges would open the Pandora’s box out of which would flow a parade of horribles: every government official - legislators , judges, prosecutors, police officers, administrators - who sought positive coverage with the media, and did anything that helped the media, would have to be investigated.”

Dershowitz went on to say:

“In the case of the Yediot Ahronot matter, more than 40 Knesset and cabinet members voted in favor of the newspaper, while PM Netanyahu effectively killed the bill and went into elections. Many of these Knesset members then received positive coverage in Yediot Ahronot. Yet they were not investigated. Only the PM (Netanyahu), who killed the bill, is being persecuted. This disparity illustrates the enormous discretion prosecutors have in selectively prosecuting alleged violators of this open-ended prosecutorial tool…Any such charge would give law enforcement far too much power to dictate to the media and to the officials they cover how they relate to each other. In a democracy, criticism of the relationship between media and government should be left to voters, not prosecutors. I urge you to consider the dangerous implications for democracy and the freedom of the press if you go forward with these charges against the PM.”

In the Yediot Ahronot case, Netanyahu was alleged to have worked out a deal with the paper’s publisher, Arnon Mozes, for favorable coverage in exchange for a bill that would weaken the pro-Netanyahu newspaper, Israel Hayom. In another case, the police had alleged that Netanyahu and his family received cigars, champagne, and jewelry from Hollywood mogul Arnon Milchan. In exchange, Netanyahu has allegedly pushed for the so-called Milchan Law, which would exempt returned Israelis (from abroad) from paying taxes for 10 years. There is also the Bezeq case. The police “suspect” that PM Netanyahu took bribes and acted in a conflict of interest in intervening in a regulatory decision that favored Shaul Elovitch, the controlling shareholder of Bezeq, Israel’s major telecommunications company. Netanyahu vowed to refute all the allegations, which he described as “blood libel.” He dismissed the police recommendations as having “no legal status.” In his emotional speech Netanyahu said that “the Left knows that it cannot win in the ballot box, therefore it put tremendous pressure on the attorney general who is only human.” Netanyahu promised, “This house of cards will collapse.”

On March 4, 2019, Netanyahu launched the Likud election campaign by first shaking hands with his chief rival within the Likud, Gideon Saar, in a show of unity within the party. Addressing the nation, Netanyahu said that (translated from Hebrew) “our strength comes from our people, and from you, the best team in Israel. You’re not some team made up by an advertising firm, you’re an experienced and capable team, democratically elected by tens of thousands of dues paying party members.”

He pointed out that an annual report published recently (March 3, 2019) in the U.S., rating the strongest nations in the world, placed Israel as the 8th strongest nation in the world. The report highlighted Israel’s global influence. This is a direct result of the policies we’re leading. It is a direct result of the international connections I have cultivated consistently over the years.

Netanyahu confronted the Center-Left bloc, led by Yair Lapid and Benny Gantz of the new Blue and White (Kahol-Lavan) Party, in particular. “The left”, Netanyahu said, “has recommended a path of surrender, concessions, and weakness. We, on the other hand, chose a path of national pride, strength, and honor. The results are for all to see except for the media. In Warsaw (last month) I was together with six Arab foreign ministers, all in the open, not hidden from the world.” Netanyahu added: “when I meet with my friend, President Trump or my friend President Putin, or any other world leaders in Beijing or Tokyo or Chad, I am filled with pride as the representative of the citizens of Israel. We need to continue this successful way.”

The Israeli media has certainly pandered to the new Blue and White party led by the former chief-of staff, Gen. Benny Gantz. Known as the party of the Generals (the leadership includes former chief-of-staffs Moshe Yaalon and Gabi Ashkenazi), it has been careful in its pronouncements, hoping to win some votes from the majority of Israeli voters who are leaning right-of-center.  

Notwithstanding the backwind Kahol-Lavan is receiving from the media, the most recent poll by Israel Hayom and i24 NEWS-TV through Maagar Mohot polling service, Kahol-Lavan leads the Likud by 9 mandates (seats) with 38 mandates to the Likud 29. However, the Right bloc is far larger, and would garner 62 mandates. According to the poll, the Right Unity Parties will get 9 mandates, the New Right 8, Torah Judaism 6, and Shas (the Sephardic Orthodox party) 6, Moshe Kahlon’s (current Finance Minister) Kulanu party will get 4 for a total of 62 mandates in the Knesset 120 seats. The Center-Left with Kahol-Lavan’s 38 mandates, Labor 7, and Meretz 6, brings that bloc a total of 51 seats. Should it include the 7 mandates of the Arab Ta’al party of Ahmed Tibi as a voting bloc, it would still not have enough votes to form a governing coalition. In this case, under the best possible scenario, Kahlon’s Kulanu party would join the Kahol-Lavan coalition, thus giving it 55 seats, not enough to form a stable coalition government, since the Arab party is likely to bolt on key decisions. In recent days, Gantz has made overtures to the orthodox parties, knowing full well that without them he won’t be able to form a stable governing coalition. 

Asked in the same poll, who is more suitable to serve as prime minister - Netanyahu or Gantz, 43% of respondents said Netanyahu, 36% said Gantz. Netanyahu may be down, be he certainly is not out.