Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the man who has dominated Israeli politics for most of the past 25 years, is locked into the fight of his life.
Indicted on corruption charges, with an election looming in a few weeks and his opponents increasingly in control of parliament, Mr. Netanyahu has made a desperate bid for immunity from prosecution – and now seems likely to fail in that tactic too.
But with the risk of defeat growing, Israel’s longest-serving Prime Minister could be rescued by a crucial election boost from a powerful ally: U.S. President Donald Trump.
Mr. Trump’s administration is pondering whether to release a new Israeli-Palestinian peace plan in the weeks before the March 2 election. The peace plan could seize the election spotlight and provide the Prime Minister with a badly needed distraction from the corruption charges.
Mr. Trump’s national security adviser, Robert O’Brien, confirmed this week in a U.S. media interview that the peace plan might be released before the election.
A commentator in Israel’s Haaretz newspaper, Chemi Shalev, wrote on Tuesday that releasing the peace plan would be “gross intervention” in the election.
Mr. Trump already handed a political gift to Mr. Netanyahu this month when he authorized the assassination of Iranian military commander General Qassem Soleimani, a bitter enemy of Israel.
Although the Prime Minister was careful not to take any credit for the drone strike that killed Gen. Soleimani, since it could provoke Iranian military retaliation, Mr. Netanyahu has always emphasized his close relationship with Mr. Trump, and many Israeli voters would see the assassination of the Iranian commander as an implicit example of that relationship.
Mr. Netanyahu, prime minister for the past 11 years and also from 1996 to 1999, has been hugely influential in shifting Israel’s politics increasingly to the right, relegating its left-wing parties into a much smaller role in the Knesset, the Israeli parliament.
But without the U.S. peace plan, or even with it, Mr. Netanyahu is in serious political and legal trouble. In two elections last year, his Likud party was unable to form a majority in parliament, leaving Israel without a fully functioning government.
In November, he was charged with fraud, breach of trust and accepting bribes. One charge accuses him of providing lucrative assistance to Israeli media tycoons in exchange for gifts such as expensive cigars, Champagne, jewelry for his wife and favourable media coverage.
Faced with these charges, Mr. Netanyahu did what he had earlier insisted he would not do: He requested immunity from prosecution. If successful, the tactic could buy enough time to delay his corruption trial until after the March election or even for years afterward.
But this week, he suffered a setback in the Knesset. His opponents won a vote to set up a committee to investigate his immunity bid despite last-ditch efforts by Mr. Netanyahu’s party to fight the process. The committee, which will be controlled by the Prime Minister’s opponents, is expected to hold public hearings and then reject the immunity bid – which would potentially send him straight to a court trial on the corruption charges.
The tactics by the Likud party this week, including a petition to the High Court and an emotional walkout from a stormy Knesset committee meeting, showed how high the stakes have become.
“Netanyahu doesn’t have any way to control the process, and he’s not used to being in this position,” political commentator Tal Schneider told The Globe and Mail in an interview. “It’s the first time in 11 years that he doesn’t have a majority.”
Mr. Netanyahu and Likud still believe they have a chance to block the committee’s attempt to hold hearings on the immunity bid, possibly using further court applications and parliamentary filibusters, she said. “They will try every trick they can think of. We haven’t seen them so defensive for the past 11 years.”
Polls show that most Israelis aren’t happy with the corruption indictment or the immunity bid, so Mr. Netanyahu’s opponents will try to keep the issue alive with weeks of committee hearings and investigations before the March election.
Yohanan Plesner, president of the Israel Democracy Institute, told The Globe there are legal disagreements on whether Mr. Netanyahu could serve as prime minister and form a government if he is a defendant in a corruption trial. But even if he can, it would be “very undesirable,” because it would put him in a “constant conflict of interest” when the government is dealing with legal and judicial matters, he said.
Politically, however, the corruption charges could have one benefit for Mr. Netanyahu: They could allow him to run as an anti-establishment candidate, portraying himself as a victim of persecution, and this could fire up his political base, Mr. Plesner said.