Pfeffer's Israel: Is Bibi being edged towards the exit?

Will last week's Supreme Court ruling on the deputy prime minister be a prelude to a much more explosive showdown between the judicial and executive branches of the country?


Shas leader MK Aryeh Deri seen during a Shas party meeting, at the Knesset, the Israeli parliament in Jerusalem, on January 23, 2023. Photo by Yonatan Sindel/Flash90 *** Local Caption *** שס ש"ס אריה דרעי כנסת

January 26, 2023 13:11

The four-day Aryeh Deri saga is being regarded by many in Jerusalem as a “dress rehearsal”. 

Last week the Supreme Court ruled that the deputy prime minister, health minister and home affairs minister (yes, he had all those titles) could not serve as a minister due to his recent conviction for tax fraud, only resolved on Sunday when, Benjamin Netanyahu announced “with a heavy heart and much sorrow” that he had to remove Mr Deri.

No one should have been surprised by the ruling in Mr Deri’s case. The real question is whether this is a prelude to a much more explosive showdown between the judicial and executive branches of the country: a similar ruling in Mr Netanyahu’s case. 

Mr Deri is not the first minister forced out of office because of criminal charges. It isn’t even the first time it has happened to Mr Deri. But a prime minister is another matter entirely. A prime minister’s resignation means that of the government and a new one needs to be sworn in, under a new prime minister — or elections.

That’s why, despite petitions to the Supreme Court, Mr Netanyahu was allowed to remain prime minister three years ago when the charges he is facing in court were first filed, and why there was no challenge a month ago to his return to office. But there is another scenario in which he may be removed. 

The last time the Supreme Court was petitioned on the matter, then Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit — who had approved Mr Netanyahu’s indictment — was of the opinion that he could remain prime minister in the interim.

But his legal opinion, presented to the court, included this: “It cannot be categorically ruled out that under concrete exceptional circumstances there would be cause to remove from office a Prime Minister accused of criminal wrongdoing.”

This has been cited repeatedly in recent weeks by sources close to the current Attorney General, Gali Baharav-Miara, as the base for a possible new opinion that would consider declaring Mr Netanyahu “unfit” on the grounds that his government’s plan to weaken the Supreme Court is influenced by his own legal travails. 

Over the weekend the rumours swirled and made headlines until the coalition acted. The leaders of its member parties (not including Mr Netanyahu) sent the Attorney General a long, angry letter stating that “no one has the authority to depose a prime minister and topple the legal government, with the exception of the people and its representatives by law. Any other assertion is patently illegal.” 

Ms Baharav-Miara responded curtly that, contrary to media reports, “I have not held discussions” on declaring Mr Netanyahu unfit, leaving everyone to ask why had she had not denied the reports three days earlier when they first came out, and whether she was hinting that such discussions may be held in the near future.

“The government has called her bluff and made her look like a ringleader of a plot,” said one legal official. “This was very bad timing.”

Another legal source thought otherwise: “More than anything else, Netanyahu is now worried that the AG and the Supreme Court declare him unfit and the response from the coalition bosses, no doubt coordinated by him, has shown just how spooked he is.” 

To compromise or not?
The official opposition is also split over how to respond to the Supreme Court reforms. 
Benny Gantz’s National Unity party is in favour of having a dialogue with the government and trying to work out a compromise package.

Mr Gantz’s confidant, former minister Hili Tropper, has been discreetly speaking with members of the coalition, including justice minister Yariv Levin, to examine options. On Saturday night he was at the demonstration against the government in Jerusalem, where speaker after speaker lambasted any notion of compromising. 

“I don’t know if they are really interested in any compromise,” he admitted wryly. “I still think we have to try, while fighting the plan in the Knesset and on the streets.”

But his party seems to be the exception. 

President Herzog has been trying frantically to get all sides to sit down and work out a compromise. This has included a series of uneasy, often heated, arguments with Mr Netanyahu and the other party leaders.

The government at this point is refusing to consider an alternative venue for debate to the Knesset Law Committee, chaired by Religious Zionism’s Simcha Rothman, a fervent believer in the plan. 

On Monday, President Herzog announced: “I am working to set up a mechanism which will help us overcome our differences and safeguard Israel’s unity for years to come.” There was no response from the coalition.

Leader of the Opposition Yair Lapid, who only hours before had advocated such a move, had to quickly backtrack, denying he had ever agreed to a compromise. “My proposal was to take the issue out of the hands of a criminal government,” he insisted. 

“They’re all falling to the same trap: Gantz, Herzog, Lapid,” said Labour MK Naama Lazimi.
“Netanyahu has seen how powerful the protests are against his plan so he’s trying to put everyone to sleep with talk of compromise. That’s why Labour has refused to take part in any such talks.” 

It’s rishi’s fault
Last week I wrote about the official photograph of the meeting between Mr Netanyahu and the new IDF Chief of General Staff, Major-General Herzi Halevi. A British friend pointed out an interesting detail.

On his desk, just at the edge of the photo’s frame, could be seen the spine of a book. It was a biography of the first Roman emperor by Anthony Everitt.

I tweeted the photo, suggesting jokingly that the prime minister may have been using the story of Octavian, who had forced the Senate to make him leader for life — Augustus Caesar — as a signal to his rivals or allies. 

The tweet caught on and the book on Mr Netanyahu’s table featured in a number of reports in the Israeli media.

On Monday afternoon, after the prime minister attended a solidarity meeting with Aryeh Deri in the Shas faction room at the Knesset, he held a meeting of the Likud faction, where he brought up the book. For some reason, he wanted to clarify why he had the book on his table. 

Apparently, it was all because of Rishi Sunak. A phone conversation had been scheduled between the two prime ministers and in the briefing before the call, the British government’s plan to proscribe the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guards Council had come up.

Mr Netanyahu said that he hadn’t heard the word “proscription” for a long while and wasn’t sure of its meaning but that he recalled having read it in the book on Augustus, which he went to find in his library and was reading when General Halevi was ushered in. He didn’t say whether he found the answer in the book. 

January 26, 2023 13:11

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