Benjamin Netanyahu’s bid to win immunity from looming prosecution and curb the Supreme Court’s powers have threatened to delay the formation of a coalition government.
Mr Netanyahu, whose Likud party leads the rightwing bloc in Israel’s Knesset, is in the midst of coalition negotiations that have dragged on for six weeks to cobble together a majority. He is already in the second week of a two-week extension granted by Israel’s president, and political analysts expect he will have to ask for another extension.
“Regarding the coalition, I regret that the parties are still in the treetops,” Mr Netanyahu told a weekly cabinet meeting on Sunday. “I hope that a way will be found soon to bring them down to the ground of reality so that together we can form a strong and stable government.”
Those negotiations have been complicated by the four-time prime minister’s demands that the coalition immediately pass two bills: one that would grant him, and other members of the Knesset, immunity from prosecution while in office, and another that would allow the Knesset to overrule the Supreme Court.
While those are shared goals within the rightwing bloc, Mr Netanyahu’s probable indictment under charges of corruption has added an urgency to the negotiations, and driven up the cost for convincing coalition members to sign up. Even Likud loyalists, such as Gideon Sa’ar, a powerful rival to Mr Netanyahu in the party, have publicly complained about the negotiations.
On Tuesday, Mr Netanyahu increased the number of ministerial portfolios to 24 to accommodate the demands of potential coalition partners.
“This is a decision whose sole purpose is to gain a political majority, through a tremendous waste of public resources,” said Yohanan Plesner, head of the Israel Democracy Institute, a non-partisan think-tank, on Wednesday. “Such a change for the sole purpose of serving an immediate political need is both unnecessary and of dubious legitimacy.”
The immunity bill would shield all members of parliament from prosecution while in office. Mr Netanyahu’s current term could last another four years but he might be formally charged with indictments for corruption, fraud and breach of trust within the next few months if the attorney-general overrules a scheduled preliminary defence
Mr Netanyahu has decried the long-running investigation as a witch hunt, and used it to rally his rightwing base to 35 seats in the April elections. He is due to make a declaration of his assets to the courts on Friday as he seeks permission to allow supporters to pay for his legal defence.
If Mr Netanyahu also gets coalition support for parliament to override Supreme Court decisions, it is unlikely that he would face prosecution, since he could then block any attempts by the Supreme Court to void the immunity of MPs.
The override clause is popular among rightwing voters who see the Supreme Court as too liberal, especially on issues regarding Palestinian land rights. Jockeying among coalition allies for the ministry of justice portfolio is exceptionally fierce because it offers opportunities to choose rightwing judges and further curb the independence of the Supreme Court.
“The prime minister is quietly acting to change the system of government so as to create a Turkish sultanate that is headed by Sultan Netanyahu,” said Moshe Ya’alon, one of the leaders of the Blue and White party, the neophyte political alliance that leads the opposition.
“All interests have been subordinated to enable Netanyahu to evade justice, and the Knesset is going to be turned into a city of refuge for criminals.”