Q & A | The police recommended to indict Netanyahu. What's next?
How likely is it that Netanyahu will escape an indictment?
The likelihood that Netanyahu will escape an indictment is virtually nil. It is hard to imagine a scenario in which the attorney general would decide to close all of the cases against Netanyahu without pressing any charges whatsoever. While the police recommendations are non-binding, the attorney general will not be able to ignore them altogether, and the police have set the bar high enough, both in terms of the recommended charges and the magnitude of the evidence gathered to support them, that they’ve effectively limited the attorney general’s ability to dismiss the recommendations altogether.
This does not necessarily mean, of course, that he will follow the recommendations to indict Netanyahu in both cases. It is more likely that he will only pursue the more solid of the two cases – the “presents” affair. Even in this case, however, it is possible that the attorney general will not follow the police recommendation to charge Netanyahu for bribery but will instead make do with lesser charges of fraud and breach of trust in order to reduce the chances of an eventual acquittal. Still, our assessment is that he will not be able to throw the recommendations out entirely and close both cases without any charges.
In other words, shortly after the hearing that he will hold with Netanyahu and his attorneys, either at the end of this year or at the beginning of 2019, the attorney general will in all likelihood decide to indict the prime minister.
Will the coalition be able to survive an indictment?
Both Kahlon and Bennett have stated that an attorney general decision to indict Netanyahu (post-hearing) will be a watershed moment after which they will no longer be able to continue with “business as usual.” These statements stand in marked contrast with those made by Avigdor Lieberman, who just this week noted that as far as he is concerned the prime minister should step down only after a conviction. The ultra-Orthodox parties, meanwhile, have not made any concrete reference to this matter outside of reiterating their confidence in the prime minister.
For this reason, we anticipate that once the attorney general makes a final decision to indict Netanyahu, the prime minister will be forced to step down by Kahlon and Bennett. Even so, this does not mean that he will be forced to step down immediately, or that early elections will be held shortly after such a decision. Since elections are currently scheduled for November 2019, and since there is no such thing as snap elections in Israel (there is a minimum of 90 days from the moment early elections are declared to the moment they are actually held), if the attorney general makes his final decision only in mid-2019 it may well be the case that Netanyahu’s coalition partners will allow him to remain in office until the November 2019 elections. If, on the other hand, the attorney general makes his decision at the end of 2018 or the beginning of 2019, we are likely to see early elections already in mid-2019.
Bennett and Kahlon’s decision whether or not to allow Netanyahu to remain in office until after the elections will depend first and foremost on the charges that will be included in the anticipated indictment. Charges of bribery will most likely cause them to push Netanyahu aside right away, while charges of breach of trust may be seen as “light” enough to justify their remaining in a coalition under his leadership until after the 2019 elections.
Another major question under such circumstances will be whether or not Netanyahu will announce his intention to run in the 2019 elections as the head of Likud and the party’s candidate for prime minister. Legally, an indictment will not prevent him from doing so. In other words, once an indictment is submitted, Bennett and Kahlon will have to decide not only if they are prepared to pull the plug on the current coalition, but also if they are ready to make a public commitment not to join a new coalition under Netanyahu after the 2019 elections due to the indictment against him. Such an announcement may force Likud to push Netanyahu out and find a new candidate for the premiership.
What could bring Netanyahu down before the attorney general’s final decision?
On the legal front, there is only one development that could bring Netanyahu down before the attorney general’s final decision on Cases 1000 and 2000, and that is if he is questioned under caution (i.e., as a suspect) in Case 3000 (the submarines affair). While Netanyahu’s coalition partners are willing to stick with him until an indictment in Cases 1000 and 2000, despite doubts about his personal conduct that have been raised in both cases, they will have zero tolerance if he is suspected of corruption in matters relating to Israel’s national security interests.
On the political front, there are various thorny issues that could generate a political crisis. Yet, as we will discuss below, we do not envision any of the coalition partners going so far as to topple the coalition due to their demands not being met once they’ve committed to remain in the coalition despite the police recommendations.
What are the immediate political ramifications of the police recommendations?
While none of Netanyahu’s coalition partners have rushed to pull the plug on him following the police recommendations, all of them recognize his increasing vulnerability – and many of them are poised to take advantage of it.
The issue that will trouble Netanyahu the most in the wave of pressure from his coalition partners will be the various West Bank annexation initiatives. This explains Netanyahu’s statement this week that he had begun discussions with the Trump administration regarding annexation of certain parts of the West Bank. Netanyahu assumed that this statement would aid him in fending off pressure from the right to move forward with the annexation process. What he did not expect, of course, was the White House’s outright denial of any such discussions.
The White House’s strong denial will only strengthen Bennett’s resolve to push the various annexation initiatives forward. The fact that Netanyahu is clearly under pressure from the US administration to exercise restraint will only help Bennett in his efforts to undermine the prime minister in their ongoing fight over votes from the hardcore right. And while Netanyahu hardly wants to see these annexation initiatives moving forward, his political weakness, and the likely pressure from the right, may eventually lead him to support a limited annexation initiative, one that will apply only to certain settlements blocs that are already seen as being part of Israel proper by most Israelis.
Another particularly sensitive issue that the coalition will have to deal with in the coming months is the conscription law, as the High Court struck down the legislation in its previous version last year and has given the Knesset a year to legislate an alternative version. The ultra-Orthodox parties will not agree to any concessions on this front (that is, they will insist that all ultra-Orthodox men who want to study Torah be exempt from military service) and Netanyahu may be forced to side with them, damaging his popularity with the wider public in order to maintain his coalition and his long-term alliance with the ultra-Orthodox.
How will the police recommendations affect Israel’s security policy?
This past weekend’s outburst of violence provided a glimpse of just how high the stakes are on Israel’s northern front. Nevertheless, in our view, Netanyahu’s complicated legal situation will not result in his embarking on military adventures on that front (or on the Gaza front, for that matter).
Netanyahu has always exercised caution when it comes to the use of force and we believe that he understands that his main selling point to the Israeli public at the moment is his reputation as “Mr. Security.” This explains why he remains much more popular than any of his political rivals, despite the embarrassing publications about his hedonism and possible criminal conduct, and why, at least according to last night’s polls, he is still the leading candidate to establish the next coalition after the next elections. Netanyahu knows full well that he may quickly lose his popularity if he begins to pursue a more aggressive security policy that results in a severe military conflict, and that his coalition partners will not hesitate to get rid of him under such circumstances.
Indeed, the main security risk at the moment lies with Israel’s enemies’ perception of Netanyahu following the police recommendations. If they come to believe that Netanyahu will be more hesitant to enter a military conflict in light of his legal problems, they may conclude that now is the time to challenge Israel and its red lines, a decision which could result in a dangerous miscalculation.
How might Lapid’s surprising involvement in the prime minister’s criminal cases affect him?
The fact that Lapid may become a key witness against Netanyahu in Case 1000 has introduced an unexpected twist into the political calculations of both Netanyahu and his main political rival. On the one hand, Lapid’s standing as Netanyahu’s chief political rival may be strengthened as a result of this revelation, particularly among center-left voters, helping him to gain even further in the polls at the expense of Labor’s Gabbay. On the other hand, we cannot rule out the possibility that Likud’s claim – that Lapid is attempting to topple Netanyahu via legal means after failing to do so in the political arena – will now be more convincing to those Likud members who had contemplated shifting allegiance to Lapid in the next elections, and that thus they will ultimately be deterred from doing so.
In our view, however, the more pressing question is whether or not Netanyahu will be successful in dragging Lapid into the dirt with him. After all, Netanyahu claims that since Lapid, too, is a close friend of Arnon Milchan – the Israeli business tycoon suspected of bribing Netanyahu – he should also be investigated for his dealings with Milchan while serving as finance minister. Anything less, according to Netanyahu, would be a clear double standard. Should this line of reasoning result in a decision to investigate Lapid as a suspect as well, this would clearly have an adverse effect on Yesh Atid. For the time being, however, this seems an unlikely scenario.
Lastly, Lapid’s involvement as a witness in Netanyahu’s criminal cases, and Netanyahu’s attempts to incriminate Lapid, puts to rest any speculations that the two might cooperate again following the next elections, as they did after the 2013 elections. Given the acrimony between the two, any such cooperation, whether in the framework of a national unity government or with Lapid serving under Netanyahu as foreign minister, seems all but impossible.