As Israel just went through its last round of elections, I decided to finally expose a theory I have been strongly advocating since the short-lived 35th government announced its dissolution: Netanyahu’s 2-year long fight for his political survival might end up with an unexpected outcome: a right-wing government led by those who vowed to oust him, and these same lawmakers backing him for the Presidency of Israel, as elections for the job will take place at the latest on June 9.
Quick reminder of the President of Israel’s job description: a largely ceremonial position, akin to the Monarch of the United Kingdom. The President is elected for a single seven-year term by an absolute majority in the Knesset, and basically acts as the parent of the nation and the warrant of Israeli democracy. The only significant responsibility of the President lies in appointing a candidate to build a coalition after elections. While the general consensus is to pick the head of the largest elected party, the recent switch in political trends to the “anti” and “pro” Bibi camps made the task a bit more complex over the past two years. Apart from this, the President signs on most laws passed by the legislative apparatus, appoints a few public figures upon recommendation from Knesset committees, and engages in soft diplomacy with world leaders and foreign ambassadors.
Such a position would appear quite trivial to the man who has been continuously leading the country for the past decade, and it would most likely be if it was not for the 14th article of Basic Law: The President of the State: “The President of the State shall not be criminally prosecuted. The period during which, by virtue of this section, the President of the State cannot be prosecuted for an offense shall not be counted in calculating the period of prescription of that offense.” All of a sudden, a potential appeal of the position to Netanyahu makes a lot more sense. After unsuccessfully pleading immunity to the 22nd Knesset, and failing to build the coalition which would have enabled him to pass a retro-active French law, this appears to be his last option to evade prosecution.
Now, one might have to wonder how this would be a plausible outcome when four consecutive elections took place due to the refusal of 60+ lawmakers to join a coalition under the infamous, longest-serving Prime Minister. First and foremost, presidential elections occur every seven years, and this fourth round is the only one whose timeline allows such an outcome. By the time the ultimate deadline to form a government under the result of the current election is reached, a new President will have to be elected by the Knesset. Similarly to building a coalition, 61 lawmakers have to agree on appointing a successor to Ruvi Rivlin. Since the “pro-Bibi” camp only gathered 59 seats, who would be the wild card able to unlock the predicament? Gideon Sa’ar, of course.
“Someone will have to break a promise for a coalition to be formed.” This sentence strikingly summarizes the aftermath of the 24th Knesset election. Sa’ar vowed not to join a government under Netanyahu, and any right-winger would renege on their core values by building a coalition based on the support of anti-zionists. So which promise should Sa’ar break in order to prevent a fifth election? I claim that he could unlock the situation and keep his word while obtaining major portfolios and promoting a right-wing agenda, as promised. A coalition of 63 seats (free of Itamar Ben Gvir and Avi Maoz, for obvious reasons) could be formed, with Sa’ar and Bennett reuniting with their first home, Likud, and obtaining the Premiership and Defense portfolio. Netanyahu would sit as President, with no executive power, but would be able to punctually advise the Cabinet on strategic matters. He could make the country benefit from his unmatched experience and his diplomatic ties, prepare the future, and remove one of the biggest flaws of his diplomatic track record: the latter is entirely Bibi-dependent. Think of a start-up with immense potential, but fully dependent on the presence of its founder: this would make it impossible to turn it into a sustainable and scaled company.
Sa’ar was actually the first one to bring up this idea, back when was fighting Netanyahu in the Likud primaries in December 2019. His unequivocal defeat made him realize that balance of power is the only language spoken by his former boss. If Sa’ar opts to join forces with the rest of the anti-Netanyahu camp, they might be able to oust Netanyahu perpetually, expediting him to court as a random citizen. If he doesn’t, then the ousting becomes mathematically impossible. This is one great deal of leverage that should be strategically used by Sa’ar. The likeliness of a coalition between Meretz, the Joint List, and New Hope after voting the anti-Netanyahu law is close to none, hence leading to a fifth election. If Gideon Sa’ar however opts for the Presidency option, he will be one of the most senior members of a right-wing government, ready to pass a budget and work tomorrow, entirely free of his nemesis and dependence on left-wing parties.
With regards to Netanyahu, who might be the most unpredictable politician that the West has known, it is hard to assume his position on the matter. One thing is certain: one can only push his luck for so long. For example, Roger Federer made his come back being 40 years of age but will have to face the consequences of an aging body in spite of his legendary status. The same applies to the one who became known as the political wizard. His promise-breaking became an accepted and conventional strategy. Likud, which had traditionally been a mainstream party for moderate right-wingers, is today embodied by Netanyahu’s last loyal lieutenants, who mostly bark and finger point as a way of conveying ideas. The party would most likely not be endorsed by Jabotinsky today, as any of its nobility is gone. The PM’s diplomatic achievements are turning into a fiasco: the Biden administration is quietly but surely giving back its credibility to a regime chanting death to the Big and Little Satan, while the Republicans benefactors shamefully heal from Trump’s insurrectionist behavior; the UAE publicly shame Netanyahu’s election madness while Iran happily watches from across the Persian Gulf; and Benny Gantz pleads the Jordanian ‘monarch’ to push back at the PM while being the only fool in the room not having understood that Jordan has no more leverage than Professor Zelekha had in these elections. Netanyahu has always been the one to see the bigger picture before everyone else. Halting his trial for 7 years and maintaining his comfortable lifestyle, while acting as a glorified Minister of Foreign Affairs, seems like the perfect escape plan; especially considering that 50,000 citizens were chanting to his demise as recently as last week.
One last question which I would like to elucidate: would it be morally right to do so? This part is the trickiest in my opinion as it almost pertains to philosophy. What makes something right, its legality or morality? And if the latter, what moral is right? Pragmatic behavior has recently yielded more peace agreements and less bombing than humanism (just compare the war record of the two last POTUS). Does it make Donald Trump a more peaceful person than Barack Obama? I am not sure there is a right response here, but I will do my best to give as many elements as possible on electing an indicted person as President.
First, I come from the country which inspired the infamous French law. The very foundation of democracy is the separation of power between the executive, legislative, and judiciary apparatus. Arguing that the judiciary branch should not be able to bring down democratically elected rulers while being in exercise is fathomable. As a matter of fact, it is partly applied in Israel. Why is it that a President, who honestly does not do much, is immune from any prosecution, but the PM who works day and night running the country could be brought down by any sort of indictment? When Moshe Katsav removed any dignity from the job by committing rape, he was not sacked or indicted. He had to quit under public pressure, and rightfully so. The French Law, in France, does not apply to violent crimes. It does however protect from trying to obtain positive press coverage or receiving cigars from wealthy individuals, activities that most party leaders in Israel partake in (does not make these dees legal, but this should be objectively stated).
Second, we imperatively need to think in terms of consequences for the Israeli democracy. Yes, Netanyahu being elected President while indicted would provoke outrage across the nation. Conversely, would not the incarceration of an acting Prime Minister as well? The establishment of a government based on the support of anti-zionists? The prospect of a coalition drafting suddenly, with no transition whatsoever, dozens of thousands of ultra-orthodox to the military? All of these are very legitimate measures if led by a democratically elected government that got a mandate to do so. But if 61 MKs opt to select Netanyahu as the next President of Israel, then the decision is legal and valid as well. Chaim Weizmann’s (first President of Israel) main contribution to the Zionist endeavor was to obtain the Balfour Declaration in 1917. Netanyahu’s track record in public service, combined with the fact that he still obtains a majority of seats after 4 elections in a row and despite an ongoing trial, could be enough of a justification to make this compromise. Especially when the main argument of the anti-Netanyahu camp is not the PM’s personal ethos or guilt in his cases: it is the fact that he cannot rule while being faced with conflicts of interest. Stripping him of any executive power and giving him a ceremonial, advisor role would make their argument suddenly invalid. Here is striking proof: none of these party leaders would have an issue sitting with Aryeh Deri, formerly convicted and jailed before coming back to the same Ministry in which he was being bribed.
Finally, let’s think in terms of interest for the country as a whole. When I claim that the anti-Netanyahu camp has no real program or consistency, it is a neutral and objective statement. Only Yesh Atid, Labor, and Meretz share commonalities and cohesion in terms of governance. Liberman’s last platform is bashing the Charedim; he qualified the Joint List as the ‘enemy’ but was willing to partner with them a year ago. Gideon Sa’ar pretty much walked away from Likud with its program and only changed the party name to make it fit the Star Wars saga. And Benny Gantz is just relieved he kept his job in the Knesset since his business acumen (or lack of) has been outed in the press. The only solid and cohesive platform today, based on the voting count, is a right-wing government. Israel has so much to build on and protect in the coming 4 years. A lean and cohesive government was able to lecture the world during the first wave of Covid-19. It might do so again when it comes to vaccination campaigns and healing the economy. Hezbollah is cornered, knocking at the door, and an ISIS 2.0 might as well if Jordan were to collapse (fear the upcoming Palestinian elections). Erdogan is waiting for an opening and must be delighted at the current sweet words exchanged between Biden and Putin.
The “king-makers” of this fourth election should think wisely before making any dramatic decision. The prospect of Sa’ar and Bennet reunifying Likud (giving it 43 seats in total) and running for Premiership primaries in the coming weeks would constitute an example of democracy. They would ensure the Presidency to Netanyahu, who would have a seven-year mandate to begin healing the country from its divisions and ensure the diplomatic transition. His one big incentive to do so is the prospect of a pardon in 2028 when a new President will be elected. A large part of the population will inevitably be aghast by this political ploy, but let’s face it: this shock will occur mostly out of hatred for the character and his ideology since any conflict of interest would be removed. Sa’ar and Bennett know very well that giving in to this hateful opposition, and joining forces with anti-zionist parties, comes at a very high price. Gantz, who stands for a softer ideology, was not ready to cross this line a year ago. Being faced with the same dilemma repeatedly can only result in an endless deadlock, or in a dramatic outcome. In this very instance, courage may lie in dramatically shifting the lens and proposing creative solutions. This might finally conclude the State of Israel’s first constitutional crisis.