Israeli Election Update 2/28/2019

March 1, 2019
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After more than a year of intense speculation, it finally happened: Israel’s attorney general announced today that he would move forward with the indictment of Prime Minister Netanyahu on several counts of corruption. We don’t yet know how this bombshell will impact the polls or the results on Election Day. But there’s no doubt that Netanyahu’s political survival is now more in doubt than ever before — and that the remainder of the 2019 election campaign will be incredibly personal and contentious.

Here’s our latest Election Update reviewing what happened today, how the major political parties are reacting and other important election news.

Netanyahu Indicted For Bribery, Fraud and Breach of Trust

After three years of investigations, Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit announced his decision to move forward with an indictment of the prime minister in three separate cases:

  • Case 1000 — Netanyahu is accused of accepting gifts (including cigars and champagne) from wealthy businessmen in exchange for political favors. He is charged with fraud and breach of trust.
  • Case 2000 — Netanyahu is accused of reaching an agreement with the publisher of the prominent Israeli newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth. The publisher allegedly agreed to provide Netanyahu with favorable coverage in exchange for Netanyahu backing legislation that would damage Israel Hayom, a rival right-wing newspaper. Netanyahu is charged with fraud and breach of trust.
  • Case 4000 — Netanyahu is accused of acting in his capacity as communications minister to provide regulatory concessions to businessman Shaul Elovitch, in exchange for Elovitch’s news site Walla providing Netanyahu with favorable coverage. Netanyahu is charged with bribery, fraud and breach of trust.

Formally notifying Netanyahu of his decision, the attorney general told the prime minister: “You acted in a conflict of interests, you abused your authority while taking into account other considerations that relate to your personal interests and the interests of your family. You corrupted public servants working under you.” The next step in the legal process is a formal hearing at which both Netanyahu and the state will be able to present their cases before a court. It is widely expected that, following that hearing, the cases will ultimately move to trial.

For months, Netanyahu has insisted that he is innocent and that the charges against him are part of a leftist plot to remove a right-wing prime minister from power. Now he and his allies will double down on those arguments, urging the public to repudiate the charges against the prime minister by re-electing him. Today, a statement from the Likud said that the indictments have “one goal: to topple the right-wing government headed by Netanyahu so as to give rise to a left-wing government headed by Lapid and Gantz.” Most of Netanyahu’s other likely coalition partners, including the ultra-Orthodox Shas and United Torah Judaism, the extreme right “Union of Right-Wing Parties” and Naftali Bennett’s “New Right” have already said today that Netanyahu is innocent until proven guilty and that they will continue to back him to serve as prime minister at the head of the next government. One of the only parties to remain on the fence is the center-right Kulanu, which is seen as a potential swing party and has yet to issue a statement.

Opposition leaders in Blue and White, Labor, Meretz and the Joint List have denounced Netanyahu’s corruption and called on him to resign and stand down from the election campaign. The prime minister’s main rival, Blue and White leader Benny Gantz, urged Netanyahu to cease his attacks on law enforcement and the justice system, and made clear that he could not join a government that included Netanyahu.

Will the indictments lead to a rapid end to Netanyahu’s political career? Could some right-wing voters respond by switching their allegiances to Blue and White, or vote for other right-wing parties and weaken Likud? It’s too soon to tell. While all polls should be taken with a major grain of salt, a Times of Israel poll taken yesterday found that in the event of an indictment, Likud would lose 4 seats while Blue and White would see a massive rise to 44 seats.

Central Elections Committee Will Weigh Petition to Ban Kahanist Party

Over the past week, many in Israel and the American Jewish community have strongly denounced Prime Minister Netanyahu’s orchestration of a deal that would bring the extreme right Otzma Yehudit (“Jewish Power”) party into the next Knesset and potentially into the next government. In the wake of Netanyahu’s move, the Meretz Party — with the support of Labor, the Joint List and Yesh Atid — petitioned Israel’s Central Elections Committee to bar Otzma Yehudit from running in the election. The petition effort was also backed by thousands of Israelis and American Jews and promoted by American Jewish groups including the New Israel Fund, J Street, Ameinu, Americans for Peace Now, Partners for Progressive Israel, the National Council of Jewish Women and T’ruah.

The Central Elections Committee, which is composed of representatives from all parties in the outgoing Knesset, will now consider the request. The committee can bar parties from running with a majority vote, though their decisions can also be reviewed and overturned by the Supreme Court. Otzma Yehudit shares most of the platform and many of the same leaders as Rabbi Meir Kahane’s Kach party, which the Central Elections Committee disqualified from running in elections in 1988, on the grounds that it promoted racist incitement against Arabs. That decision was later upheld by the Supreme Court.

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