As we go to press on Monday, four days after Israel’s attorney general indicted Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for corruption, Netanyahu remains defiant, calling the charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust an “attempted coup.“ And now, Israel’s longest-serving leader is searching for a solution to sustain his own political survival.
The Netanyahu indictment came one day after Benny Gantz, leader of the centrist Blue and White party, announced that he was not able to form a governing coalition — continuing the stalemate following Israel’s elections in September, the second inconclusive elections this year. After each election, first Netanyahu and then Gantz tried to form a government, but failed. And until Netanyahu’s indictment, the prospect of a third election did not appear likely to produce a different result. Things may be different now.
Throughout the unsuccessful coalition discussions this fall, many Israelis (including President Reuven Rivlin) called for the formation of a national unity government. Gantz said he was open to the idea, but insisted that Netanyahu, tainted by the corruption investigations, had to go. Likud and its right-wing partners rejected that approach and backed Netanyahu as their continuing leader. No one budged.
Shortly after the indictment, however, and perhaps in recognition that even with Netanyahu’s problems a third election might only lead to the same inconclusive results as the first two, Gantz on Saturday proposed a unity government that would include Netanyahu. Under his new approach, Gantz would lead the government for two years and Netanyahu would lead the government in the following two years — provided that Netanyahu is acquitted of corruption charges.
That suggestion would break the impasse, allow for the formation of a government and provide time for Netanyahu to work through his defense — or for the negotiation of some other alternative remedy. While we recognize that there is no Israeli law that requires a prime minister under indictment to step down (although Prime Minister Ehud Olmert did just that in 2008), Israelis appear to be getting restive. A poll by Israel’s Channel 13 found that 56 percent of Israelis believe that Netanyahu cannot continue to govern after being indicted.
Although no one questions Netanyahu’s right to defend himself — and we express no opinion on the merit of the criminal charges that have been brought against him — it is both unseemly and largely unworkable for Netanyahu to stay in active control of the complex and demanding responsibilities of government when he will be so heavily distracted by work on his defenses to the three sets of charges.
In a divided and stalemated Israel, with less than two weeks left before a third election is required by law, Netanyahu is standing in the way of a unity government, of a refreshed Likud and of new energy and ideas in the Israeli body politic. As deeply committed supporters of the State of Israel, we hope the Jewish state finds the way forward.