Israel’s High Court met this week for a hearing that could shatter Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s hopes of fighting another election.
Netanyahu has rejected claims that he should resign because he has been indicted on corruption charges — and insists that he will run in the March election.
But the High Court has agreed to hear a petition, set for Dec. 31, claiming that he shouldn’t be allowed to form a new government. If the panel of three judges accepts this argument, it would disqualify him as a candidate for prime minister in the upcoming ballot.
It is widely seen as the strongest attempt to date to enlist judges to stop Netanyahu continuing as premier. “It’s not simple and it’s not a certainty, but there is a real possibility that the court will act,” Michael Partem, vice president of the Movement for Quality Government in Israel, told The Jewish Week.
His organization unsuccessfully submitted its own petition to force Netanyahu’s resignation as prime minister, but the latest petition is thought to be stronger.
It doesn’t argue that Netanyahu, who was PM at the time of indictment, should be forced to leave office — a claim that has been rejected. Rather, it claims that after the country goes to fresh elections, set for March, an indicted prime minister shouldn’t be given a chance to re-enter office.
“We thought he should resign now, so all the more so, he shouldn’t be in a position to form a new government,” said Partem.
An alliance of 67 academics and business people has submitted the latest petition, and Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit is expected to issue his opinion on Sunday, two days before the scheduled hearing, explaining whether he supports or rejects its premise.
Netanyahu has claimed throughout the corruption allegations that he is innocent, and that he will continue got appeal to the public to enforce him as prime minister. He urged this week that a court ruling would constitute interference to this process, telling supports that “in a democracy, only the nation decides who will lead the nation.”
His justice minister, Amir Ohana, echoed Netanyahu in an implied criticism of the judges who are overseen by his ministry. Ohana said that the High Court “erred” by agreeing to hear the petition, and argued: “The public needs to decide, not any official or judge.” Likud legislator Miki Zohar warned that it will be “scandalous” if the High Court disqualifies Netanyahu.
It isn’t only Netanyahu’s friends in Likud who have rallied around him; his foes have also. And there’s even a chance that the politician who always seems to bounce back may end up getting a boost from this High Court saga.
The petition came to dominate Israeli headlines just a few days before today’s Likud party’s leadership election. His challenger, Gideon Saar, a former minister, couldn’t keep quiet about the petition; it was too big a story.
The petition is Saar’s big change to get to the top of Likud. (Bad weather on Thursday and confusion about the time for the start of voting threatened to hold down turnout. Organizers said they would hold the polls open until 11 p.m.) Saar’s challenge is considered a longshot, but whatever the primary results, if the High Court disqualifies Netanyahu, Saar he will be the obvious choice for party leader.
Saar needed to act carefully. If showed even a hint of support for it, his reputation in Likud would be in tatters.
Members widely see the cases against Netanyahu as a form of political prediction intended to force him aside, meaning that support, or joy if it succeeds, would harm his standing in Likud. He publicly shunned the petition, tweeting that the question of whether Netanyahu can form a government “isn’t a legal question but rather a political one.”
He argued: “The law is clear: A prime minister must be replaced in the ballot box and not in court.”
A source close to Saar told The Jewish Week that Saar supporters agree with others in Likud that Netanyahu is being unfairly targeted by legal authorities. “There is strong consensus in Likud that whether or not there is a basis for the indictments against Netanyahu, they have been timed to exact a political price from the prime minister,” he said, adding that a ruling to stop Netanyahu standing as PM would be seen as equally untoward.
But Saar didn’t stop at condemning the High Court petition. He went further to convince party members that he takes no pleasure from Netanyahu’s woes.
If he makes the Prime Minister’s Office, he told supporters, he will try to install Netanyahu as president.
He said that he “will seek for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to be elected Israel’s next president in the elections set for a year and a half from now.”
Saar’s promise is quite the Chanukah gift for Netanyahu — a remarkable insurance policy. In fact, it could turn out to be an actual Get Out Of Jail Free card for the PM. Whatever happens at the High Court, if Likud wins the election, Saar may have just given Netanyahu a way to end up smiling.
Should the court rule against Bibi and Saar becomes prime minister, Netanyahu can then ask him to deliver on the presidency pledge — and reap the rewards of immunity.
If the petition goes Bibi’s way and he secures a Likud election victory, then at any moment, either before or after a government is formed, he could ask Saar to come good on his offer. This offer could well represent a new path for Netanyahu to avoid the danger of being forced out of office by legal woes by resigning, making a relatively graceful exit.
If Netanyahu can make it to the President’s Office before any trial against him, he is likely to benefit from immunity provisions and stay out of court. The timing issue could well prove straightforward as his lawyers are expected to launch numerous procedural challenges that delay the start of a trial.
Making a promise that Bibi won’t let him forget, Saar may have just set the state for Israel’s longest-serving prime minister to slip in to the role of the country’s next president.
Nathan Jeffay’s column appears twice a month.