The indictments of Benjamin Netanyahu are a proximate cause of the political tumult into which Israel has fallen, with a third election almost certain after two inconclusive preceding tallies. The news that Israeli police had recommended the indictments played a key role in Netanyahu’s decision to call early elections in the first place—so that he could secure a mandate that would include the passage of a new law granting prime ministers immunity from prosecution while in office. As a 5-year-old Israeli relative of mine once informed me about my efforts at weight loss, “it don’t working.”
The indictments are sketchy. Two of them involve supposed schemes to get favorable press coverage, neither of which went anywhere. The third involves the idea that he was bribed by longtime fixer Arnon Milchan with cigars and champagne. When investigations of Netanyahu began in 2016, one of the matters being looked into was highly incendiary, having to do with whether the prime minister had favored relatives when it came to matters relating to new oil fields and the manufacture of submarines for the Israeli navy. Such questions go to the heart of Israel’s national security, and if it could have been proved that Netanyahu had compromised that security in any way, he would be toast now.
It was the leak of those investigations that made this matter seem different in kind from other political scandals in Israel’s history—even though the idea that Bibi would compromise national security in this fashion didn’t seem believable. But those matters were dropped, leaving only the prospect of Israel’s longest-serving prime minister being ousted in disgrace for cigars, champagne, and a foolish idea of negotiating for more favorable media treatment. (His wife Sara has already pled guilty for—get this—having ordered catered meals on the Israeli government’s dime when there was a government-paid chef already working at the prime minister’s house.)
In a classic political Rorschach test, you can view these as horrible examples of deep corruption. But, generally speaking, many if not most people who do so have personal or ideological beefs against Netanyahu and see all this as the way to get him out of power. Or you can see them as an act of revenge against Netanyahu by one of the almost countless number of Israeli political figures who were once allied with him. That’s Bibi’s claim against attorney general Avichai Mandalblit, whose original appointment in 2015 by Netanyahu was viewed by anti-Bibi forces as the installation of an ally who would protect him from precisely the sort of thing that has now happened.
So the ironies abound. It’s more than merely conceivable that Netanyahu can beat these charges in a court of law, but can he defend himself and remain prime minister at the same time? The very idea of granting immunity from prosecution to an elected leader during his tenure is to prevent distractions of this sort—on the grounds that the country’s interest is more important. You can see how this might work at a time when Israel is girding itself for a possible two-front war against Iranian proxies.
Bibi would seem to be the best person to be at the helm at this moment. But statutorily, that might not be the case. Given that he has been unable to form a coalition—twice—he is effectively running a caretaker government. It’s far from clear what specific claim he has on the PM’s office given that fact—or that, given what has happened, he has an argument he needs protection from prosecution because he is the legitimately elected leader. The horrible fact is that Israel might need him more than ever, but it won’t be able to have him.