Israeli politics churn as Netanyahu indictment adds to chaos | Middle East| News and analysis of events in the Arab world | DW | 21.11.2019
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Middle East

Israeli politics churn as Netanyahu indictment adds to chaos

Legal challenges and an appeals process could mean it is two years before Benjamin Netanyahu faces trial. The corruption charges add to political uncertainty as lawmakers make their fourth attempt at forming government.

Israel's political system entered a historic moment of crisis on Thursday after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was formally indicted on corruption charges, only one day after the third attempt this year to form a government failed.

The legalities surrounding how Netanyahu might challenge the charges or request immunity throws the country's political stalemate into further chaos, with many aspects of the situation unprecedented in Israeli law.

Analysts say the impending charges have been the single biggest obstacle to the process of forming a government, but it is unclear whether the indictment announcement will provide a breakthrough.

The charges could make it far more difficult for Netanyahu to hang on to power despite his reputation as a political magician.

What happens now?

According to Natael Bandel and Jonathan Lis from Israeli newspaper Haaretz, Netanyahu has 30 days to request immunity to avoid a criminal trial but the body assigned to approve it and put it to a vote in the Knesset, the House Committee, has not been appointed since April.

If the request can't be processed the indictment can't be filed, but the Knesset could set up a one-off House Committee to review the request or it could be postponed until a new government is formed, Bandel and Lis wrote.

Various appeals involved in that process could take up to two years before an actual trial begins, which could be delayed even further.

However, there are already calls for Netanyahu to step down.

Watch video 01:25

Israeli PM Netanyahu indicted on graft charges

The Israel Democracy Institute think tank issued a statement Thursday saying "any Prime Minister attempting to perform his official duties while under indictment will create an intolerable and unacceptable reality," citing concerns his actions could be interpreted as having inappropriate motives.

"Public norms demand that the Prime Minister must resign from office and focus on proving his innocence."

But Netanyahu vowed to stay on as PM and fight the charges Thursday, denouncing them as "false" and "politically motivated."

"What is going on here is an attempt to stage a coup against a prime minister," he said.

Read more: Iran and Israel renegotiate 'rules of the game' in Syria shadow war

Chaos amid deadlock

What that means for both Netanyahu's and the country's future is far from clear, as Israeli lawmakers enter a window of 21 days allowing the first parliamentarian who collects 61 out of 120 signatures to nominate a leader to form a government.

In the September elections Israel's two main parties — Benny Gantz's Blue and White and Likud led by Netanyahu — both won 35 out of 120 seats, but cobbling together a majority coalition with various smaller parties who hold often unflinching positions on certain issues has been an impossible task for them both.

Netanyahu's far-right bloc with ultraorthodox religious factions has prevented him from garnering the support of the hawkish secular "king-maker" Avigdor Lieberman, while Gantz also failed to get Lieberman's backing after he accepted tacit support from Palestinian lawmakers, termed by Lieberman a "fifth column."

Benny Gantz delivers a speech at his campaign launch (Reuters/A. Cohen)

Gantz announced Wednesday he was unable to form a government to replace Netanyahu

Yuval Shany, a political analyst at the Israel Democracy Institute, told DW that this growing political polarization, where politicians campaign on a platform of refusing to work with others, is part of the reason for the deadlock.

"This makes it very difficult after the elections to go back on all these promises," Shany said.

But before the announcement of corruption charges on Thursday, Peter Lintl, an analyst at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, told DW the sole reason why the most likely scenario of a Likud-Blue and White unity government hasn't been formed was Netanyahu's looming indictment.

"Netanyahu would ideologically have no problem with being in a coalition with Gantz but Gantz said he will not serve under an indicted PM," Lintl said. "Netanyahu needs to be PM because he wants to prevent this indictment at all costs and he can only do so as prime minister."

What does Netanyahu's potential fall mean for Palestine?

In September's election campaign Netanyahu told his followers Palestinians "want to annihilate us all," summing up the fear-mongering he has often wielded to take Israeli politics further to the right at the Palestinians' expense over his 13 years as PM.

As a study by analyst William Cubbinson of the Israel Democracy Institute's Gutman Center shows, Jewish Israeli support for a two-state solution has consistently fallen in line with Netanyahu's shift to the right since 2009. 

Watch video 00:33

Israeli Attorney General: 'This is a hard and sad day'

But he is far from alone in supporting frequent disproportionate military action against Gaza, creeping annexation of the West Bank and denial of Palestinians' fundamental rights.

Read more: Violence in Gaza: How Netanyahu and Iran stand to profit

Even without him at the helm, attitudes in Netanyahu's Likud and ultraorthodox bloc range from complete to partial annexation of the West Bank, and they broadly agree with expanding Israeli settlements deemed illegal under international law and the military subjugation of Gaza.

Gantz is seen by some as slightly more to the left, as certain members of his party still support peace negotiations, but his rhetoric on Gaza has been just as hawkish and he has claimed proposed annexation plans in the West Bank as his own.

Yara Hawari, an analyst at Palestinian think tank al-Shabaka, told DW that the long-delayed "peace plan" yet to be proposed by Donald Trump advisor Jared Kushner and often promoted as a Trump-Netanyahu initiative could quite likely find a partner in Gantz.

"Everything the US has done so far has been welcomed and applauded by Benny Gantz," Hawari said. "The US might well find a partner in him, that's entirely possible, especially looking at his track record."

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