Netanyahu doesn’t want them, but there are signs that he’s less afraid of Hezbollah than he is of a party rival
DECEMBER 13, 2018, JERUSALEM – Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu certainly has his work cut out for him.
Besides serving as prime minister, he’s been acting health minister and acting foreign minister. Now, he’s taken on the role of acting defense minister, where he’ll personally oversee tensions that for months have been high along the border with Gaza, and now have spiked along the border with Lebanon.
He’s also suspected of fraud or bribery in three separate criminal cases. He’s had to undergo numerous hours of questioning by police, and now, with the police having officially recommended he be indicted for each file, he’s had to deal with a revolving door of defense attorneys, one of whom died and another who withdrew because she reportedly was not being paid.
No, life has not been easy for the prime minister – and to top it off, it looks like he’ll face early elections rather than conclude a full term next November.
Netanyahu has been acting health minister since the original minister, head of one of the ultra-Orthodox factions in the coalition, resigned over perceived Sabbath violations concerning the state-owned railway. He’s been acting foreign minister because he had hoped to augment his coalition with an additional party and wanted to hold the position open as an incentive.
The defense portfolio fell into his lap last month when the defense minister withdrew his party from the coalition over policy differences concerning the Gaza Strip, which has seen months of deadly rioting along the border fence and sporadic rocket and mortar fire. In recent days, though, all eyes have been on the frontier with Lebanon, where the army has been uncovering tunnels burrowed deep under the fence by Hezbollah, which is believed to have an estimated tens of thousands of rockets pointed at Israel. Just a small spark there would be enough to set off a war.
Politically, the party’s departure left Netanyahu with a razor-thin Knesset majority of just 61 out of 120 seats, and even that advantage was threatened when the prime minister kept the defense portfolio for himself rather than hand it over to the leader of another party sitting in his government. (This is not to mention yet a third disgruntled party leader who long has been at odds with Netanyahu over several areas of coalition-sponsored legislation.)
Now add to the mix Netanyahu’s mounting legal woes. They concern allegations that he and his family have improperly been living off the state’s largesse; that he conspired with the publisher of a newspaper to help boost its circulation in return for friendlier coverage; and that he moved regulatory mountains worth as much as $300 million to a communications tycoon in return for more sympathetic coverage from his online news site.
Several months ago, the police recommended that indictments be handed down in the first two cases, but now they’ve recommended indictments for the third – which is seen as the strongest case against Netanyahu. For now, those recommendations lie in the lap of his attorney-general, whose purview includes all state prosecutions. He’s a Netanyahu appointee but is viewed by many as being in no one’s pocket. Legal experts say he’ll have to make a decision on indictments within a few months at most.
By law, Netanyahu will have to resign if convicted. However his predecessor, Ehud Olmert, who ended up in jail for criminal activity of his own, resigned as head of his Kadima party even before the first of several indictments came along, creating something of a precedent. As a result, the heads of parties in the opposition are loudly calling for Netanyahu’s resignation. Even more important, the heads of parties within his coalition feel he should do something, anything, even if it means calling for early elections, something he does not want. But most importantly, Netanyahu has been losing support within his own party.
Gideon Sa’ar is a popular figure in the Likud. He twice came out of party primaries directly behind Netanyahu and was seen by many as his heir-apparent. But in the Likud, where Netanyahu has been loath to groom a successor, that’s a recipe for trouble, so in September 2014, Sa’ar, by then interior minister and not yet 48 (he turned 52 this week), dropped a bombshell and announced he was leaving politics, ostensibly to spend more time with his family.
Political commentators scoffed at the notion: He was taking a timeout to regroup while Netanyahu stewed in his tzuris. Sure enough, Sa’ar announced his comeback last year as the prime minister slid deeper and deeper into the mud.
Then, somewhere among Netanyahu’s associates, a light flickered on. It turns out there’s a loophole in the law that gives the president the power to call on someone to form a government. Until know, it was popularly believed only that the politician need not be the head of the party that gets the most votes, only the head of the party that has the best chance of forming a coalition. But now it turns out that the politician need not even be head of the party – a good thing for Sa’ar.
The current president, Reuven Rivlin, comes from the Likud. He is extremely popular with the masses, even those on the other side of the political spectrum. And he despises Netanyahu, who slighted him at almost every turn as they came up through the ranks of the party and the Knesset, up to and including his candidacy for the role of president.
To close the loophole, Netanyahu this week gained full agreement from the parties in his coalition to ram a bill through the Knesset. It’s been dubbed the Gideon Sa’ar Bill, and it’s a sign that the prime minister is truly feeling the pressure, for it’s said that the quid pro quo is early elections.
What can we learn from this? Aside from the whiff of elections being in the air, Benjamin Netanyahu seems more willing to take on Hezbollah than he is Gideon Sa’ar.
Lawrence Rifkin is the Journal’s bureau chief in Jerusalem.