Op-edNo citizen -- including the PM -- should be above the law

Don’t mess with Israel’s democracy

Netanyahu and his loyalists have targeted the media, police and courts, and now the legislature. Our system isn’t perfect, but it doesn’t need ‘reform’ for narrow political gain

David Horovitz is the founding editor of The Times of Israel. He is the author of "Still Life with Bombers" (2004) and "A Little Too Close to God" (2000), and co-author of "Shalom Friend: The Life and Legacy of Yitzhak Rabin" (1996). He previously edited The Jerusalem Post (2004-2011) and The Jerusalem Report (1998-2004).

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends the weekly cabinet meeting at his office in Jerusalem on October 1, 2017. (AFP/Sebastian Scheiner)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends the weekly cabinet meeting at his office in Jerusalem on October 1, 2017. (AFP/Sebastian Scheiner)

The Knesset’s winter session opened on Monday in a bitter frenzy of infighting centered on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s corruption allegation difficulties and his efforts to extricate himself from them.

Probed for months over his alleged acceptance of large quantities of freebies from powerful friends, and over his alleged negotiation of a go-easy-on-me deal with the publisher of the country’s biggest newspaper, Netanyahu has essayed all manner of gambits to deflect, deny and dissemble. The press, the cops, the courts — all have been targeted for their ostensible perfidy.

At solidarity rallies organized on his behalf, he’s castigated the “left and the media” — asserting that the two are “the same thing” — as a primary source of his woes, suggesting that battalions of politically motivated journalists have been trying to force the hands of the weak-willed police and the state prosecutors in order to have him indicted. He’s sought to undermine the chief of police (whom he appointed) by complaining of a “tsunami” of “illegal leaks” from the corruption probes. His loyalist members of Knesset have long besmirched the court system as purportedly overly interventionist and politically skewed.

And now, his focus has turned to the legislature. As the Knesset goes back to work, Likud members are working on legislation that would bar investigation of a serving prime minister. Of course, they insist, such a law would not apply retroactively — that is, Netanyahu would not benefit from its provisions. Unless or until, that is, it gets amended on its journey through the Knesset, or Netanyahu comes under new suspicions. Just come out and call it “the law to save Netanyahu,” opposition MK Yoel Hasson scoffed on Monday.

Some drafts of the fast-changing bill also include a provision for term limits for the PM — as though to sweeten the pill. It won’t be possible to question him for corruption, runs the narrative, but not to worry, he won’t be around forever. Unless or until that clause gets amended.

Of course, Netanyahu won’t be around forever. At 68, Israel’s longest-serving PM after David Ben-Gurion is no spring chicken. But he’s healthy, and shows absolutely no desire to step down.

Like almost all of Israel’s prime ministers, indeed, he appears to have become thoroughly convinced that the well-being of the State of Israel and his own political fortunes are inextricably intertwined, and that the country would find itself in existential peril were anyone but he at its helm. What should not be overlooked, however, is that a goodly proportion of the public evidently shares at least a degree of that sentiment. Otherwise, they wouldn’t keep on electing him.

Netanyahu is not particularly liked by much of the public. But the best polls of all, those general elections we have, keep showing us that enough Israelis think he is more capable than his would-be replacements of keeping this country relatively safe, stable, and livable.

We need a vigorous defense of the checks and the balances that have seen our fledgling democracy thrive

It’s foul that Netanyahu is firing off in all directions against the key institutions of our vital democracy.

It’s profoundly troubling that the prime minister is under a heavy cloud of suspected corruption; he is the alleged top-of-the-hierarchy symbol of an era of rampaging corruption in this country. The old adage about power corrupting remains well-known and widely used because it is accurate.

The response has to be a vigorous defense of the checks and the balances that have seen our fledgling democracy survive and thrive so remarkably through decades of challenge — uniquely in this benighted region.

The idea of imposed term limits has much to commend it. And it is no surprise that the notion is more often discussed of late, in this divisive Netanyahu era. If power corrupts, then absolute power corrupts absolutely. But why shouldn’t the public be allowed to keep electing the same leader if that’s who it wants in power? It has worked for Israel thus far, hasn’t it?

At the same time, though, we must not be constraining and tinkering with the other core components of our democracy. The police must be free to go about its work, with no citizen — and that emphatically includes the serving prime minister — immune from its attentions and above the law. And not just free to do its work, but properly resourced in order to do it effectively. So, too, the courts must be able to function competently and independently, with the proven formula for appointing justices preserved.

Perfect harmony among the branches of authority is unattainable. But the good-faith nurturing of the complex relationships is imperative.

Those core components saw one previous prime minister, Yitzhak Rabin, resign from office in the 1970s, and another, Ehud Olmert, forced out of office and ultimately convicted and jailed for corruption. They saw other prime ministers — notably including Ariel Sharon — extensively investigated, but ultimately able to carry on.

The system may not be perfect, but it has proved itself viable. It must be protected against the transparently narrow political motivations of those who now seek to “reform” it.

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