There was a disturbing disconnect in Jerusalem yesterday.
A day after lead prosecutor Liat Ben-Ari opened the evidentiary phase of Benjamin Netanyahu’s trial on charges of bribery, breach of trust and fraud, President Reuven Rivlin asked the sitting prime minister to try to form a new government.
With Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud Party having emerged from last month’s inconclusive election with 30 Knesset seats, far more than any of his rivals, Rivlin felt he had no alternative but to give Netanyahu the first crack at trying to cobble together a majority government.
Yet Rivlin was under no illusion that his decision would break the current state of paralysis in Israeli politics. Having consulted the leaders of the 13 parties that managed to win parliamentary seats, Rivlin said, “The results of the consultations… lead me to believe that no candidate has a realistic chance of forming a government that will have the confidence of Parliament.”
And he added, “The law obliges me to entrust one of the candidates with forming a government.”
As Rivlin suggested, the election, the fourth since 2019, produced yet another debilitating deadlock. Netanyahu and his allies on the right won a total of 52 Knesset seats, nine shy of a majority. Netanyahu’s feuding opponents on the right, center, left and in the Arab community amassed 57 seats, four short of a majority.
Yair Lapid, whose centrist Yesh Atid Party won 17 seats, hoped he could assemble an anti-Netanyahu coalition numerically strong enough to merit an invitation from Rivlin to form a government.
A former finance minister in one of Netanyahu’s previous governments, Lapid conducted talks with, among others, Gideon Sa’ar of the New Hope Party, Naftali Bennett of the Yamina Party, Mansour Abbas of the Ra’am Party and Ayman Odeh of the Arab Joint List Party.
Retreating from his previous position, Lapid even offered Bennett the chance to serve first as prime minister in a government in which the premiership would be equally shared. This was an astonishing concession in light of the fact that Bennett’s party won only seven seats. Bennett, however, did not support Lapid, saying he did want to be part of a coalition that would include left-wing elements. Nor did Sa’ar, Abbas and Odeh endorse Lapid. If they all had backed Lapid, he would have had enough seats to unseat Netanyahu.
When the negotiations ended, Netanyahu — the nation’s longest-serving prime minister and the first sitting one to be charged with criminal offences — received 52 recommendations, compared to 45 for Lapid and seven for Bennett.
Which is why Rivlin pivoted toward Netanyahu, giving him 28 days, with the possibility of a 14-day extension, to assemble a coalition that could muster at least 61 seats in the 120-seat Knesset.
But in granting Netanyahu this opportunity, Rivlin was acutely aware that his reputation is irretrievably stained and that he faces a trial that could last for years. As Rivlin put it, “The question of giving the role to a candidate facing criminal charges was one of intense political and public disagreement over the recent election campaigns.”
“This decision has not been an easy one in my eyes, in terms of morals and values,” Rivlin went on top say. “I tremble for my state, for our state, but I am doing what is required of me as president of Israel, bound by the law and the decisions of the court.”
Lapid understood Rivlin’s dilemma. “The president fulfilled his duty and he had no choice,” he said after Rivlin chose Netanyahu. “But giving the mandate to Netanyahu is a shameful disgrace that tarnishes Israel and casts shame on our status as a law-abiding state.”
Lapid is absolutely correct.
If decency had prevailed, Netanyahu would have gracefully resigned after Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit indicted him. But Netanyahu is so intent on clinging to power that he will do virtually anything to perpetuate his premiership, even at the cost of calling a fifth election within two years. What he cares about most is political survival, even if it means sending the country into yet another election.
And contrary to his assertion yesterday, he most definitely is not the victim of a “witch hunt.” Nor are prosecutors “trampling democracy,” subverting the will of the electorate, or attempting to carry out a “coup” against him.
Netanyahu would do Israel a great, if belated, service if he finally stepped aside. Sadly, much to Israel’s detriment, he is not likely to do the right thing.