Middle East Eye / April 23, 2021
With staying in office affecting his freedom, not just his career, the Likud leader is seeking any way out of his political and legal crisis.
In the movies, fugitives from the law will use any trick in the book to escape justice: dirty deals, unexpected alliances, bare-faced lies.
If a film is eventually made of this past week of Israeli politics, which could quite possibly be Benjamin Netanyahu’s denouement, the prime minister’s tactics would certainly fit the mould.
A short reminder: Netanyahu is on trial for bribery, fraud and breach of trust. He has also been tasked with forming a government, which would allow him in the near future to somehow set the trial aside or at least secure him some kind of immunity.
But, after two years and four elections, he still cannot cobble together the right-wing coalition that would gift him this opportunity.
Certainly, remaining in power would be Netanyahu’s best bet for overcoming his legal troubles. From his perspective, it’s not a matter of wanting to remain in office. He has to.
But what if it is hard, bordering on impossible, for him to remain prime minister? Time to try the presidency option.
Ridiculous as it sounds, the “President Netanyahu” option is being seriously looked into by his political allies.
President Reuven Rivlin’s term in office is soon coming to an end, and eager “Bibists” (a nickname for ardent Netanyahu fans in and out of political circles) see an opportunity.
According to Israeli law, an acting president cannot be put on trial, so it sounds like the perfect solution to keep Netanyahu in power and out of the courtroom.
But is it? The law says nothing about a president stepping into office while already on trial. It’s a risky option, but still not completely off the table.
Some might say it’s unconscionable for a president, the symbolic head of the State of Israel, to be facing charges of bribery. “Who cares?” say the Bibists. We cannot leave Netanyahu unemployed.
Creative minds do not rest.
Remember the April 2020 rotation government agreement with Benny Gantz, which would see the Blue and White party leader take the premiership as “alternate prime minister” after 18 months?
Netanyahu preferred to forget about it and force Israelis into another round of elections instead, rather than give Gantz his turn.
Now he remembers. In the political corridors of both the left and right a new idea is examined: to implement a rotation now, making Gantz prime minister and Netanyahu the alternate. Rumours say Gantz might not object. Still, it is not a very popular option.
Then came another idea. Let us offer temporary premiership to one of Netanyahu’s close allies, like Parliament Speaker Yariv Levin, with Netanyahu preserving power as head of the ruling Likud party.
It would be something like the 2008 Russian arrangement that allowed Vladimir Putin to trade the presidency for the premiership, only to swap with Dmitri Medvedev again in 2012 when the constitution allowed. Despite relinquishing the presidency, Putin retained the power.
Netanyahu could similarly use his influence from afar, securing law changes and judicial shake-ups that would secure him immunity, a pardon or any way out of pending punishment or prison.
“President Netanyahu” – or securing a temporary replacement – are not the only innovative ideas that have emerged out of this political and legal chaos.
Here’s the latest: let’s keep Netanyahu in office by changing the voting system altogether.
The one thing that Israelis and many politicians dread the most is a fifth round of elections.
No problem, let’s keep the parliament we have and directly vote for prime minister instead. Netanyahu versus whoever wants his seat.
Israel tried this system once, and it did not work very well. And who was the fiercest opponent of the direct vote back then? Netanyahu himself.
In a fiery speech delivered in the parliament in 2006, Netanyahu claimed: “The electoral system is not something you change like a worn pair of socks or as a part of a dirty political trick.”
A very convincing argument, indeed. But it seems to have failed to convince Netanyahu himself.
In 2021, with his future at stake, he is now an ardent supporter of this “sock-changing dirty trick” that could secure his rule.
Yet an unexpected obstacle has emerged in its way. Mansour Abbas, head of the Ra’am party, was this election courted by Netanyahu and encouraged to break from the Joint List representing Palestinian citizens of Israel.
But rather than back the prime minister, Abbas has now joined those in the anti-Netanyahu camp who have promised to block any attempt to change the voting system.
That came as a surprise. Just hours before, Abbas made an appearance in the media where he swapped the green flags of his Islamist party for the blue-and-white ones of Israel.
It appeared that the symbolism was intended as a message, if a rather confusing one.
In Israeli politics, Abbas has been cast as the “good Arab” (as opposed to the “bad” ones in the Joint List). He’s someone who has embraced his Israeli identity and looked set to keep the Israeli right in office. But some on the right could never accept him as good enough.
Abbas justified his change of heart by blaming Netanyahu ally Bezalel Smotrich, head of the far-right Religious Zionism party, who has adamantly refused to sit in a government that contains or is supported by someone he labels a “dangerous terror supporter”.
Though Abbas would be well within his rights to be swayed by this, Smotrich is likely not the real game-changer: the Religious Zionism leader has been referring to his Ra’am counterpart in this way throughout Abbas’ negotiations with Netanyahu.
There must be something else that made him change the rules of his intricate game. That might be something called “reality”.
For weeks now, Abbas must have believed he was having a positive effect on Israeli public life. As Independence Day rolled by last week, any hint of the racist legislation Netanyahu’s government brought in, officially relegating Palestinian Israelis’ culture and status behind Jewish citizens, was disappeared.
Transport Minister Miri Regev, the Likud MP in charge of the Independence Day ceremony, arranged for Arabic to be spoken during festivities for the first time ever. This, from a minister who made a formal complaint in 2018 when mixed-heritage broadcaster Lucy Ayoub addressed Palestinians in the Eurovision audience in Arabic. There’s no change of heart here, only a change in calculations.
But this week, reality knocked on the door of the staged political flirtation.
Unrest and violence spilled over in Jaffa between local Palestinian residents and Jewish Orthodox Yeshiva members who were planted in the midst of a predominantly Arab neighbourhood.
It is not the Orthodox nature of the establishment that angers the community; it is the political intention of the Judaisation of Jaffa at the expense of its Palestinian residents.
Then on Thursday, hundreds of far-right and anti-Palestinian activists took to the streets in Jerusalem’s Old City chanting “Death to Arabs” in a march led by Lehava, a far-right Israeli group.
These incidents come at a bad time for both Netanyahu and Abbas, more proof that it is impossible to divorce civil rights from national rights. Members of Raam told Middle East Eye that events in Jaffa gave Abbas no choice but to vote in parliament against Netanyahu’s nationalist, racist bloc.
Besides, they said, he is unhappy with the way Netanyahu treats him “like a mistress hidden from the public eye”. Do not bother to look for a picture of the two together. You will not find one.
But all this does not mean Abbas has changed sides for good and will continue to make decisions based on the “good of his people”. Netanyahu will always try and find a way.
Wag the dog
Besides, the “good of the people” has long been a redundant motif in Israeli politics.
Government and parliament are totally dysfunctional. Ministerial offices lie vacant. Security has become a political playground for Netanyahu and his playmates.
There is nothing like a good war or at least security threat to make people gather around a leader they know. Remember the movie Wag the Dog, where a war is staged to rescue a president suffering in an election campaign?
Well, tit-for-tat attacks on Iran have magically begun to be ramped up in recent weeks, alongside official bragging in the media. A Syrian missile strike near the Dimona nuclear plant was the latest serious escalation.
A week ago, Amos Yadlin, a retired general and head of the Institute for National Security Studies think tank, tweeted: “Do we witness a security crisis initiated to facilitate Netanyahu’s attempt to form another government?”
Yadlin is not the only one to express that concern. A desperate Netanyahu is a dangerous Netanyahu.
The prime minister has less than two weeks to form his new coalition. Rivlin will probably not prolong his mandate, and he will be obliged to turn it over to the other camp in an attempt to form a Netanyahu-free government.
Does it mean that the strange “anti-Bibi” bloc – ranging all the way from far right to the Joint List – will necessarily be more successful? Not really.
Smotrich strikes again, with his party attempting to spook the right-wing anti-Netanyahu parties by claiming Abbas is in the middle of a “civil jihad just because a real jihad war is not possible at the moment”.
These spoilers, by the way, are the people Netanyahu brought to power and even personally encouraged votes for at his party’s expense. They have now become one of his major obstacles on a way to power. Poetic justice adds a nice touch to the chaotic political atmosphere.
Lily Galili is a senior Israeli journalist and lecturer focusing on all aspects of Israeli society and immigration to Israel