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After falling short in Israel's election, Netanyahu set to confront his legal fate

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By Saphora Smith and Paul Goldman and Lawahez Jabari  with NBC News World News
Image: Benjamin Netanyahu
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu delivers a statement during a news conference in Jerusalem Sept. 18, 2019.   -   Copyright  Ronen Zvulun

As this week's election results and exit polls continue to make grim reading for Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel's longest-serving prime minister not only faces the possible end of his political career but also a likely court appearance and possibly even jail due to allegations of corruption.

Netanyahu had hoped to pass legislation that would prevent him from being indicted in relation to multiple allegations of corruption — but he can only do so if he remains prime minister. Netanyahu denies any wrongdoing and has said he is the victim of a politically orchestrated "witch-hunt" by the media and the left. But he may have to make that case in court.

With 97 percent of the votes counted as of Thursday afternoon, both Netanyahu's right-wing bloc in the Knesset and the centrist and left-wing bloc led by the Blue and White party fell short of the 61 seats needed to form a government in the 120-seat parliament.

In a video message published Thursday, Netanyahu called on the Blue and White party's leader Benny Gantz to join him in forming a national unity government. Gantz gave his own speech saying he is also ready to lead a national unity government — but he refuses to serve under his rival.

In February Israel's attorney general, Avichai Mandelblit, said he intended to indict Netanyahu on three separate charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust. Mandelblit is due to decide whether to formally charge Netanyahu by the end of 2019 after a pre-trial hearing on Oct. 2.

"In these 2019 elections of April and September, escaping court and possibly jail was Netanyahu's political Raison d'Etre," said Gilead Sher, a lawyer and senior research fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies.

But experts said that even if he does become prime minister, the divided Knesset could block any attempt to give him immunity.

"I don't think there is a majority of government to give him immunity, even if he's prime minister," said Yossi Mekelberg, a professor of international relations at Regent's University. "If he's not prime minister anymore it's almost a certainty that he will face court."

Without a governing majority of his right-wing bloc, Netanyahu will have to rely on coalition partners who are not his natural allies.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu delivers a statement during a news conference in Jerusalem Sept. 18, 2019.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu delivers a statement during a news conference in Jerusalem Sept. 18, 2019.Ronen Zvulun

With the pre-trial hearing due in less than two weeks, Netanyahu is also running out of time to pass legislation.

"Very shortly these proceedings will begin making it virtually impossible for him to form a coalition government that would enable legislation to proceed that would stop those legal proceedings," said David Halperin, executive director of the Israel Policy Forum, an organization that supports a two-state solution.

One possibility may be that Trump could lend Netanyahu a helping hand giving him some leverage in negotiations to demonstrate that it was the wrong time for the prime minister to leave office, Halperin suggested.

But Netanyahu cancelled Wednesday a visitto the United Nations General Assembly in New York next week where he was due to meet Trump on the sidelines of the event. And the president appeared to throw cold water on the idea that he would go the extra mile for Netanyahu telling reporters Wednesday that "our relationship is with Israel."


One card Netanyahu could play, according to experts, would be to negotiate a plea bargain deal. This would see him leave politics in exchange for not being indicted. His wife, Sara, did something similar earlier this year whenshe admitted criminalwrongdoing over the misuse of state funds to order catered meals in a deal that saw her serve no jail time.

But experts pointed out Netanyahu has previously dismissed the idea and he has always denied any wrongdoing.

In any case, some observers say it would be foolish to dismiss Netanyahu's chances of getting immunity entirely.

"I think we can assume that he will be offering the moon and more to whomever might be willing to join a coalition with him and certainly if they might consider advancing immunity legislation," said Halperin.