Benjamin Netanyahu is the longest-serving prime minister in the history of the state of Israel. And if he has his way, he may never give up his post.
The most serious threat to Netanyahu’s continued reign comes from the multi-pronged corruption probe that has clouded his activities for the past several years. But notwithstanding the very public nature of the criminal investigations, and the attorney general’s pointed announcement of his intention to indict the prime minister in three corruption cases, Netanyahu’s Likud party emerged in first place in the recent parliamentary elections, and Netanyahu was invited by Israel’s president to form a governing coalition and to continue as prime minister.
For the past several weeks, Netanyahu has been engaged in the complex negotiation of coalition arrangements. Much of it has taken place in back rooms, but there has been some spillage into public view with leaks of planned votes on the expansion of ministry portfolios or terms and conditions under which departing ministers could preserve their coalition positions and Knesset membership status.
And now there is another component in the process — an orchestrated effort to guarantee Netanyahu immunity from prosecution as long as he is in office. Initial reports — since denied by Likud — claimed that any party wanting to join Netanyahu’s ruling coalition had to agree to give the prime minister immunity. Netanyahu himself is reported to have given his party’s members instructions on “how to sell” the proposed immunity law, arguing as follows: “The citizens of Israel deserve a full-time prime minister. I’ll deal with my legal issues when I have completed my time (as prime minister). The citizens of Israel knew about my legal situation and elected me. If I was focused on my personal best interests, I’d manage my legal battle as prime minister and not as an ordinary citizen, but I recognize that this is not in the best interests of the state.”
Not everyone agrees that the proposed immunity law is “in the best interests of the state.” Likely opposition leader Benny Gantz thinks it’s a bad idea. And even some Netanyahu supporters, like Likud’s Gideon Sa’ar and Michal Shir, have expressed concern about the political wisdom of an immunity law tailored to the needs of Netanyahu. Reactions within the electorate have been mixed, with a May 20 poll indicating that 56 percent of the Israeli public oppose granting a sitting prime minister immunity from prosecution during his term.
We share discomfort with the immunity effort. No one is above the law. Any effort to tie immunity to political deal-making simply looks bad, and invites further accusations of political corruption.
Netanyahu is unquestionably entitled to defend himself against criminal charges, and Isareli law permits him to continue in office while under indictment or even after possible conviction — with resignation only required if the Supreme Court upholds the conviction on appeal.
Netanyahu knew that when he ran for reelection, and so did the voters.