Among Israelis and those who care about Israel, there should be no celebrating the attorney general’s announcement Thursday that Benjamin Netanyahu is to stand trial for bribery, fraud and breach of trust. Netanyahu is the longest-serving prime minister in Israeli history, an astute, intelligent and articulate leader who has repeatedly won the public’s trust at the ballot box and steered Israel through the past decade’s multi-threatening challenges in a dangerous, unpredictable Middle East.
But neither should there be any underestimating the gravity of the conclusion carefully drawn by Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit — at the end of a protracted investigation, and after weighing a final effort by Netanyahu’s attorneys to dissuade him — that the prime minister must answer in court for his actions in the three graft cases against him.
The allegations that the prime minister criminally abused his office are “grave,” Mandelblit made clear in a 15-minute appearance Thursday evening at which he exuded a mixture of competence, responsibility, certainty about his decision, and sorrow about its consequences.
Since it was his firm conclusion that there was “a reasonable likelihood” Netanyahu would be convicted of the offenses, Mandelblit stressed, “it was my legal obligation to press charges — not a choice, but a requirement.” At the same time, he stressed, Netanyahu retains the presumption of innocence; it is the judges who will decide his fate.
Thursday’s announcement marks the first time in Israel’s history that criminal charges have been issued against a serving prime minister, but it does not automatically mark the end of the road for Netanyahu. He can seek immunity from prosecution via the Knesset — a process that could take months, given that Israeli politics is largely paralyzed in the wake of April’s and September’s deadlocked elections, and the Knesset House Committee that would consider an immunity request has not been selected and may not be functional for weeks or even months.
And even if the immunity route proves fruitless, or Netanyahu were to eschew it, Israeli law is not definitive on whether a serving prime minister is required to step down when charged, or even when convicted. There is a legal argument that he would have the right to remain in office until the entire appeals process has been exhausted — a legal argument that has never been tested, because Israel has never found itself in this ignominious situation before.
In his own appearance later Thursday, a bitter, angry but emphatically unbowed Netanyahu made plain that he would not be going quietly. He would, he vowed, “continue to lead the state — in accordance with the law.”
The day Rivlin saw coming
While professing respect for Israel’s law enforcement hierarchies, the prime minister went on to castigate them, repeatedly, in the harshest terms. He was innocent of all wrongdoing, he said. His crime was to have shaped and defended a “strong, big Israel” and not “the weak, shrunken, craven state” that the left and its adherents seek.
And the police and prosecutors had now collaborated with his political opponents to attempt nothing less than a “coup d’etat,” he charged — framing him for crimes he did not commit, extorting witnesses, and fabricating evidence. It was not he who should have been investigated, he declared, but the police and the prosecutors. An independent committee was urgently needed, he said, “to investigate the investigators.”
Much of what Netanyahu alleged Thursday he has said before, in previous appearances as the legal walls closed in. But with his position at its lowest Thursday, his response was at its most incendiary. He had lost faith in the law-enforcement system, he declared, and so too had masses of Israelis — “and rightly so.”
Few people who have followed the investigations of Netanyahu, and his public efforts to discredit them, would have been surprised that he chose to go on the offensive. Few would have expected him to tell the public that he had changed course, and that, while protesting his innocence, he would temporarily step down to fight his legal battles, expecting to return once his name has been cleared.
But that is surely what he should have done. That was the course of action that President Reuven Rivlin, who saw this day coming, essentially recommended when he set out his suggested power-sharing arrangement between Netanyahu and rival would-be prime minister Benny Gantz after the elections two months ago, with its provision for Netanyahu to take a leave of absence if charged. Netanyahu ostensibly accepted the idea, but not with the specific, binding commitment that could have made it viable.
Playing with fire
Mandelblit, Netanyahu’s own former cabinet secretary and his own appointee as attorney general, is adamant that the prime minister has allegedly abused his office and must face Israel’s judges. The prime minister is adamant that Mandelblit has been misled, and that the facts are different. These are matters for the courts to decide. And since they relate to alleged wrongdoing committed by Netanyahu while in public office, the day of legal reckoning cannot be postponed.
What Israel faces now is weeks, months, maybe years of heightened internal division, of supporters of Netanyahu pitted against opponents, with potential consequences one hesitates even to delineate in writing
Instead, Netanyahu on Thursday night asked the public to choose between his version of events and that of the police and the state prosecution — telling Israelis, in short, that the institutions that uphold our rule of law cannot be trusted and should not be heeded. Israel’s very “existence,” he said, requires something that it no longer has — “a credible rule of law.”
This will not play out well.
What Israel faces now is weeks, months, maybe years of heightened internal division, of supporters of Netanyahu pitted against opponents, with potential consequences one hesitates even to delineate in writing.
Those who charge that the prosecution is corrupt, who attack its integrity, who disseminate conspiracy theories, “are playing with fire,” as Mandelblit warned.
Israel also faces weeks, months, and maybe years of legal battles — over the limitations on diplomatic, political and other action that must now apply to a serving prime minister against whom criminal charges have been issued; over his right to form another government if he finds the necessary support; over his right to remain as prime minister as the case moves forward.
Maybe, just maybe, the political picture may clarify or alter matters — somebody else in the Knesset could muster the support of 60 colleagues and form a government in the next three weeks; somebody else could win an election; some in Netanyahu’s own Likud could challenge or abandon him. And then Netanyahu would be fighting for his innocence from somewhere other than the helm of Israel.
A step too far
The prime minister and his prosecutor both peppered their appearances Thursday night with declarations of fealty to our state. Netanyahu began, indeed, with the heartfelt declaration: “I’ve given my life for this country, I fought for this country, was wounded for this country…”
They both insisted on their profound sense of responsibility to the well-being of Israel, its democracy, and its people. They both highlighted the primacy of the rule of law.
And the law will, eventually, have its say in the case of Benjamin Netanyahu — whether he is prime minister or an ordinary citizen when the wheels of justice are finally done turning. But he should have spared his, our, beloved country the ordeal Israel now faces.
He may truly believe himself to be the indispensable prime minister. He has certainly proved exceptionally effective. But our country’s national interests, notably including its internal cohesion, take precedence over those of any individual — even its longest serving prime minister, even a prime minister convinced he is the hapless victim of dark and corrupt forces.
His ferocious assault on Israel’s agencies of law enforcement, his appeal to the public to side with him and against the state, is a step too far. For Israel’s sake, and for Netanyahu’s, would that he had chosen a nobler path.