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What’s Next for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu?

Posted December 3, 2018 6:27 p.m. EST

JERUSALEM — For the third time this year, the Israeli police have recommended that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu be indicted on bribery, fraud and other charges.

But Netanyahu, who denies all wrongdoing, is not giving up easily, and it is far from clear what will happen next.

His fate now hangs on a combination of factors, including a decision by the attorney general on whether to indict him, possible court rulings on the legality of his remaining in office and the wild card, the will of the voters.

So while the accusations could well end Netanyahu’s career after four terms in office, there are just enough variables that could allow the wiliest of Israel’s political survivors to hang on to power.

Here are some of the options for how his conundrum could play out.

Appealing to Voters

The next legal step is for the state prosecutors and the attorney general to decide whether to press charges in any of the three cases brought by the police. As prime minister, Netanyahu has the right to argue his case in a hearing before the authorities make any final decision to prosecute him in court.

He could end up making history not only as one of Israel’s longest serving prime ministers but as the first sitting one to be charged with a crime.

But political analysts say he is likely to draw the wild card and seek new elections first.

Israel is already in an election year, with national balloting due by November 2019, but elections may be called earlier. Analysts say the best time for Netanyahu to stand in an election would be after he has been summoned to a hearing and before the attorney general makes his final decision.

Assuming he wins the vote, he would then be fighting his case from a newly mandated position of strength.

For now, none of his declared opponents come close to Netanyahu and his conservative Likud Party in the polls. An election that takes place earlier rather than later would allow Netanyahu to run practically unopposed, some experts say, before any new potential rivals could get organized and gain ground.

The Attorney General’s Dilemma

In theory, decisions about whether to indict Netanyahu or not rest purely on the law and the evidence. In reality, analysts say, politics could play a role.

The attorney general, Avichai Mandelblit, is in a delicate position.

A former military advocate general, he was selected by Netanyahu for the country’s top legal job. Once considered a Netanyahu loyalist, Mandelblit approved and has overseen the police investigations so far.

He has already brought fraud charges against Netanyahu’s wife, Sara, accusing her of misusing about $100,000 in public funds in her management of the prime minister’s official residence. Sara Netanyahu is currently on trial.

But a sitting prime minister has never been indicted. There is pressure on Mandelblit to move swiftly. But there is also pressure to make sure he has an airtight case before handing down an indictment that could destroy a popularly elected prime minister.

“The person in the most difficult position of all, other than Netanyahu, is Mandelblit,” said professor Shmuel Sandler, an expert on Israeli electoral politics at Bar-Ilan University near Tel Aviv.

If the election campaign has begun, however, it could make it easier for Mandelblit to press charges, Sandler said. Because the voters would be choosing a new government anyway, there would be less risk that Mandelblit would be accused of bringing down a popular one.

On the flip side, if he weighs in with an indictment during the campaign, he could be seen as trying to sway the election. The alternative, however, would be keeping voters in the dark about whether a leading candidate is on the brink of being charged with a crime.

Critics have accused Mandelblit of foot-dragging in the cases concerning the prime minister. Mandelblit says he will make a decision as soon as possible.

People Power vs. the Law

If Netanyahu is indicted, legally he can continue to serve as prime minister while he is a defendant. An accused prime minister is not obligated to resign until a final conviction in court.

But if he were charged, critics would probably petition the Supreme Court to force him to step down. The Supreme Court has ruled that a Cabinet minister charged with a crime must step down. The judges would have to decide whether the same standard applied to the prime minister.

If, at that point, Netanyahu had been re-elected, he could make a political argument to bolster his legal one. That argument, says Amit Segal, the political analyst of the Israeli television News Channel, “would be: More than a million voters knew exactly what the charges were against me and yet they elected me again.”

Then, the Supreme Court would be faced with the prospect of reversing the will of the voters.

“That’s why Netanyahu desperately needs to be re-elected,” Segal said in an interview Monday. “For him, the next election is not only a political challenge. That’s the least of his worries. First and foremost, it’s a legal one.”

There has also been speculation in the Israeli news media over the possibility of Netanyahu reaching a deal, if he is prosecuted, in which he would step down or not run again in return for avoiding jail time.

Coalition Cohesion

Netanyahu presides over a fragile coalition that holds a one-vote majority in the 120-seat parliament.

If he is indicted while in office, his coalition partners will have to decide whether to stick with him or to topple his narrow, right-wing and religious government.

Since the parties in the government mostly represent similar right-wing constituencies, they are wary of prematurely collapsing a government that is advancing their agenda. Netanyahu has reminded them of the trauma of 1992 when right-wing parties brought down a right-wing government only to watch the left take power and agree to what the right saw as the disastrous Oslo peace process with the Palestinians.

Some of the coalition parties are in electoral peril themselves and may not want to risk an election any sooner than they have to.

Aryeh Deri, the interior minister and leader of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party, one of Likud’s four remaining coalition partners, is facing possible charges, including fraud, breach of trust, tax evasion and money laundering.

Contentious legislation, such as a new law regulating ultra-Orthodox enlistment into the military, which must be approved by Jan. 15, could also rock the coalition and bring on new elections.

Short of that, few believe any parties are about to bolt.

“The entire political establishment has become so accustomed to Netanyahu being in power that nobody can believe in change,” Sima Kadmon, a political columnist, wrote in the Yediot Ahronot newspaper on Monday.

“As if Netanyahu were the sun and the moon, and all the others were only stars, and everything depended on one’s location in this galaxy,” she wrote. “But this change will happen.”