Amidst all the discussion in Israel over Prime Minister Netanyahu’s legal problems, and whether he may face charges for illegally receiving gifts from wealthy supporters — a charge he fully denies — what would happen in terms of succession should he be criminally indicted?
If such a decision is reached by the attorney general, based on police investigations, it is likely that Netanyahu would step down until he is cleared of the conviction. An official of the Israeli Consulate noted that the prime minister is not legally bound to step down, but “that is the political norm,” and in practical terms, it would give him the opportunity to prepare his legal defense. At that point the cabinet would appoint an interim prime minister.
When Prime Minister Ariel Sharon was felled by a stroke in early 2006, Ehud Olmert, who had been designated by Sharon as No. 2 in the cabinet, or acting prime minister, took over and succeeded Sharon. Netanyahu, now in his fourth term, has not designated a No. 2, so the result would be a political haggle within his Likud Party.
Whoever emerges as interim prime minister would serve for up to 100 days. If after that time the prime minister is still out of office, the appointment continues for another 100 days, at which point the president of Israel may call for new elections.
To be clear, none of this is likely to happen. Netanyahu insists the allegations have no merit and are the work of his political opponents. And police investigations of prominent politicians are not unusual in Israel; the case against Avigdor Lieberman, now defense minister, went on for years but he was not convicted.
Though Netanyahu has the slimmest of majorities in the Knesset — one vote — he appears to be at the height of his political powers, and on the cusp of solidifying his relationship with Donald Trump. The new president’s firm and public backing after eight years of enduring Barack Obama must seem like a sweet reward for Netanyahu, even if it creates problems for him within his right-wing coalition. Ironically, though he is perceived around the world as a right-wing leader, he is more of a centrist within his coalition, constantly prodded from his right by Education Minister Naftali Bennett to take more aggressive steps in terms of settlement expansion and annexation. It is likely that the prime minister is cautioning his new ally in Washington not to rush such moves, aware of the potential for another intifada and international condemnation.
Such are the topsy-turvy conditions for Netanyahu now — and such is Israeli politics. A system that has no term limits, so Netanyahu could be in office for a long time.