On Thursday, Benjamin Netanyahu was formally indicted on charges of bribery, fraud, and breach of trust (Hendrix, “Netanyahu Indicted on Charges”). The Israeli Prime Minister responded with a familiar characterization, insisting that the investigation was a “witch hunt” (Hendrix, “Netanyahu Indicted on Charges”). Additionally, Netanyahu has “demanded that an independent body review the prosecution” (Hendrix, “Netanyahu Indicted on Charges”). The case is the first time a sitting Israeli Prime Minister has been indicted, and the indictment raises unprecedented legal questions. Under the Basic Laws of Israel, where they have no formal constitution, Netanyahu “can remain under indictment and even stand trial while in office” (Kershner). In fact, the legislature has to wait until the investigation, which likely will include a lengthy appeals process, has concluded before they have the option to vote on his removal (Kershner).
The actions that prompted the investigation include “allegations that the prime minister and his wife, Sara, accepted more than $260,000 worth of luxury goods in exchange for political favors and that Netanyahu interceded with regulators and lawmakers on behalf of two media companies in exchange for positive news stories” (Hendrix, “Challenger Benny Gantz”). Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit decided to issue the indictment after agreeing with police recommendations (Hendrix, “Challenger Benny Gantz”). The text of the Basic Law states that after a conviction, “the Knesset may remove him from office, pursuant to a decision of a majority of the Knesset members. Should the Knesset so decide, the Government shall be deemed to have resigned” (Chachko). Even if the Knesset, the parliamentary body of Israel, does not vote to remove Netanyahu, the prime minister could be automatically removed from office (Chachko). This condition, however, only applies if the indictment is one that “the court defined as involving moral turpitude” (Chachko). It is hard to predict how the process will progress, but it is likely that it will be lengthy and Netanyahu will remain in office for the impending legal and political fight.
These sophisticated legal questions are further complicated by the pervading political stalemate in Israel. Both Netanyahu and his main opponent, Benny Gantz, have been unable to form a majority coalition in the parliament (Hendrix, “Challenger Benny Gantz”). This raises the unprecedented possibility of a third election in a span of a year. In the extremely factionalized Israeli parliament, both contenders have been incapable of gaining support from key minority parties (Hendrix, “Challenger Benny Gantz”). In the second election, Netanyahu hoped to gain a larger share of parliament, but again did not obtain enough seats. Netanyahu, who has been in office since 2009, is Israel’s longest serving prime minister (“Israel’s Benjamin Natanyahu”). Throughout his tenure, Netanyahu has taken a hardline approach to defense. Before entering politics, Netanyahu was a commando in the Israeli army from 1967 to 1973, and fought in the 1973 war against Egypt and Syria (“Israel’s Benjamin Natanyahu”). Translating his military experience to politics, he has supported multiple military offenses against Palestine (“Israel’s Benjamin Natanyahu”). This hardline approach is a large part of his platform which has catapulted him to political success. In 2012, he faced corruption charges and his approval rating plummeted to 35%, but he was still able to hold onto power following elections in both 2013 and 2015 (Reinhart). His political dominance has faltered overtime, but not until this year has he been unable to form a coalition.
It is hard not to draw comparisons to the situation escalating in the United States, where public impeachment hearings have begun and campaigning for the approaching 2020 elections has long been underway. In both countries, lawmakers must grapple with the unclear and rarely used mechanisms of removing a president or prime minister in the face of approaching critical elections and important political battles. Criminal and independent investigations have uncovered wrongdoing and possible crimes by both Netanyahu and Donald Trump. But the true burden is on legislators, whose decisions are convoluted by political alliances and motivations. Only a majority of parliament is needed to remove Netanyahu, while the Senate of the United States needs a supermajority to convict and remove the President. However, the fractionalized nature of the Israeli parliament complicates the process of getting a majority vote. Also, the Knesset vote is reliant on a criminal conviction, while the impeachment process is completely independent.
In a true democratic system, no one should be above the law. However, removing elected leaders is more complicated than a simple criminal trial. Should leaders be held only to criminal standards, or do certain actions warrant removal regardless of criminality? In the case of Netanyahu, his charges certainly make him unfit for office, and possibly will lead to a criminal conviction. But the lengthy process may keep him in office for the foreseeable future, if he is able to form a government. In response to this possibility, “Several lawmakers said they would immediately petition the Supreme Court to have Netanyahu removed from office” (Hendrix, “Netanyahu Indicted on Charges”). For the stability of the government in Israel, this is the optimal possibility. Another election seems likely, and ideally the voters would decide not to support Netanyahu in light of the investigations. The question of whether the Knesset or the voters will decide to hold Netanyahu accountable will define the near future of Israeli politics, and serve as precedent for the treatment of prime ministers who face allegations of misconduct.
Hincks, Joseph. “Israel May Have Another Election. Here’s Why.” Time, Time, 21 Nov. 2019, time.com/5735639/israel-elections/.
“Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu: Commando Turned PM.” BBC News, BBC, 22 Nov. 2019, www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-18008697.
Kershner, Isabel. “What’s Next for Netanyahu, and Israel?” The New York Times, The New York Times, 21 Nov. 2019, www.nytimes.com/2019/11/21/world/middleeast/netanyahu-possibilities.html.
Reinhart, RJ. “Corruption Allegations Fail to Dent Netanyahu’s Popularity.” Gallup.com, Gallup, 19 Nov. 2019, news.gallup.com/poll/246218/corruption-allegations-fail-dent-netanyahu-popularity.aspx.
Steve Hendrix, Ruth Eglash. “Challenger Benny Gantz Fails to Form Israeli Government, Deepening Political Crisis.” The Washington Post, WP Company, 20 Nov. 2019, www.washingtonpost.com/world/middle_east/challenger-benny-gantz-fails-to-form-israeli-government-deepening-political-crisis/2019/11/20/9e6da19c-0b14-11ea-8054-289aef6e38a3_story.html.
Steve Hendrix, Ruth Eglash. “Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu Indicted on Charges of Bribery, Fraud, Breach of Trust.” The Washington Post, WP Company, 21 Nov. 2019, www.washingtonpost.com/world/israeli-prime-minister-benjamin-netanyahu-indicted-on-charges-of-bribery-fraud-breach-of-trust/2019/11/21/ef396fee-0bc2-11ea-8054-289aef6e38a3_story.html.
Chachko, Elena. “Indicting a Sitting Prime Minister: The Israeli Constitutional Framework.” Lawfare, 31 Oct. 2019, www.lawfareblog.com/indicting-sitting-prime-minister-israeli-constitutional-framework.