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Israel just reminded the world that America isn’t the only democracy staring down a political crisis.
Less than 24 hours after Blue and White party head Benny Gantz failed to form a governing coalition, Israel’s attorney general announced he was indicting Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on corruption charges.
The back-to-back developments plunged Israeli politics into utter chaos, with no clear resolution in sight as the country careens toward an unprecedented third election in less than a year.
The indictments of Netanyahu for fraud, breach of trust, and bribery are historic. Never has a sitting Israeli prime minister been charged with a crime. And it all but destroys the most plausible chance at solving Israel’s political paralysis: a unity government between Gantz and Netanyahu. (Gantz has promised to never sit with a prime minister under indictment.)
“The whole system is frozen,” said Yael Pattir, the Israel director for J Street, a liberal, pro-Israel group based in Washington, D.C. “For people who are working with the government these days, nothing can be promoted and done.”
The first political earthquake hit on Wednesday night, when Gantz failed to form a coalition. That failure threw the political center of gravity to Israel's Knesset, which has 21 days to rally around another candidate, who would then have two weeks to cobble together his or her governing coalition. If that fails — a probable prospect especially in light of Bibi’s indictment — Israelis will return to the polls, likely in March 2020.
But even before Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit filed the charges Thursday, Netanyahu’s corruption charges — for illegally receiving gifts and taking official action in exchange for more favorable news coverage — loomed large over coalition negotiations.
In September, Israel’s President, Reuven Rivlin, floated a compromise aimed at forging a “national unity” government composed of Likud and Blue and White. In Rivlin’s plan, Netanyahu would serve as prime minister first, with Gantz as a vice premier. And if Netanyahu was indicted for fraud, bribery and breach of trust, he would hand the premiership to Gantz until his trials were over.
Rivlin’s proposal was backed by Avigdor Lieberman, whose right-wing, secular Israel Is Our Home party won nine seats, enough to give Netanyahu the 61 to form a coalition, and enough to give Gantz a minority government.
But now that Bibi has been indicted, a push for a unity government is dead-on-arrival. That leaves Israel with two possible scenarios: a Likud rebellion to oust Netanyahu so they can form a unity government with Gantz; or Likud members defecting on their own, without a primary, to join Gantz.
“Netanyahu has to be out of the political game,” said Brent Sasley, a University of Texas professor who studies Israeli politics, pointing out that Gideon Sa'ar, Netanyahu’s rival within Likud, has already started calling for primaries for new leadership in Likud.
But other analysts say a Bibi-less Likud is an unlikely prospect.
“Everyone in the party is a loyalist. It’s unlikely there would be a mutiny and people would say ‘Let’s abandon him now,’”said Yael Mizrahi-Arnaud, a fellow at the Forum for Regional Thinking, a research institute focused on the Middle East.
In addition, Netanyahu, as Likud chair, has significant influence over whether the party will hold primaries.
Then there’s the question of what would happen if Netanyahu comes out on top in third elections. He’ll still be facing down criminal charges—and a possible jail sentence of up to 10 years—and Israel’s president would find himself in a tough spot.
“[Would] the president…overlook the weight of the rule of law?” said Mizrahi-Arnaud. “He’d be hard pressed to give the keys over to someone who is under indictment.”
Barring a dramatic move that deposes Netanyahu from Likud’s leadership, Israelis can expect to trudge back to the voting booths for the third time in one year.
This ongoing stalemate has left many Israelis bitter and despairing over the country’s political future.
“People are seeing the whole system as a problem,” said Emily Landau, a senior research fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies, a Tel Aviv-based think-tank. “What’s going to be different in the next election? I don’t think there will be any difference. The voters are not so fickle that they’re going to change in a manner that will radically alter the situation.”
Alex Kane is a New York-based freelance journalist who writes on Israel/Palestine and civil liberties issues.
Cover: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, centre, attends in an extended faction meeting of the right-wing bloc members at the Knesset, in Jerusalem Wednesday, Nov. 20, 2019. (AP Photo/Oded Balilty)