For the first time in the history of Israel, a serving prime minister was informed by the state legal hierarchy on Thursday that he is to be indicted for criminal offenses.
To look at the glass half full, the case indicates that Israel has a robust and independent law enforcement and legal hierarchy, capable of investigating even the prime minister to ensure that all are subject to the law and equal before the law. To look at the glass half empty, the case means that after a former prime minister and a former president went to jail for criminal activities, a serving prime minister will now be put on trial unless he is able, in the course of the hearing process to which he is entitled, to persuade the attorney general to reconsider.
Benjamin Netanyahu insists that he has committed no crime. He claims to be the victim of a political witch hunt led by the left-wing opposition, left-wing media and a biased police force — all relentlessly pressuring Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit, a man he appointed to the role but now describes as “weak.”
The presumption of innocence is emphatically with him. It will now be legally tested.
But Netanyahu essentially argues that Mandelblit, in the very act of announcing the intention to indict, has now already denied him the political presumption of innocence, and in so doing has skewed the elections. The attorney general has had his say, runs Netanyahu’s assertion, but since the hearing process cannot possibly be completed by the time Israel votes on April 9, the prime minister’s side of the argument will not be comparably known.
This is a tendentious claim: For one thing, Netanyahu has taken great pains, including via live TV broadcast, to present central aspects of his defense to the public. For another, it was he who chose to bring elections forward from their scheduled date in November.
But it is not a claim to be casually dismissed. A darker shadow does indeed now hang over Netanyahu. Until Thursday, it was widely reported that he would face charges of bribery and breach of trust in the investigations against him. But now, the reported allegations have become allegations formally advanced, after two years of investigation and evaluation, by the guardians of Israeli law enforcement. Coming so soon before the public goes to the polls to elect its next government, the official announcement patently impacts the elections. Whether it unfairly skews them is quite another matter. A counter argument can be advanced that not making the announcement, that not informing the public of allegations sufficiently well-founded as to merit an indictment, would have been a far graver abuse of democracy.
Mandelblit has elected to move toward charges with every awareness of the inherent shattering political consequence
Netanyahu now finds himself with a legal mountain to climb. Initially, the prime minister must seek to marshal a defense so credible as to convince Mandelblit — who has overseen the entire investigation, and has elected to move toward charges with every awareness of the inherent shattering political consequence — that he is wrong. That he has misunderstood. That there is no case to answer.
Suspects have achieved turnarounds in the hearing process. But it seems wildly improbable in this case, given Mandelblit’s central familiarity with the evidence, and given the concern and caution with which he must have weighed that evidence in deciding to proceed.
If Netanyahu fails to deter Mandelblit, the battle will then move to the courts, and a years-long legal process will ensue.
But the protracted legal battle at the heart of this affair is not the prime minister’s urgent priority. First, there is the political battle — to see off opposition calls for his resignation and to persuade his colleagues, many of them potential rivals, that he remains an asset, a vote-winner, the leader who will secure their political good fortune. To persuade them, in short, that despite the announcement or even because of it, he will secure re-election. Ehud Olmert, it should be recalled, was forced to step down as prime minister in 2008 before an indictment had been served against him — because he had become a political liability. Olmert only went to jail, at the end of an exhaustive legal process, a full eight years later.
Opinion polls indicate that Netanyahu has retained significant personal political popularity throughout the investigation. The Times of Israel’s own latest election poll, carried out this week in the run-up to Mandelblit’s announcement, still found him neck-and-neck with his new rival Benny Gantz as Israelis’ preferred prime minister.
His political challenge in the next few weeks will be to retain that popularity including, crucially, by convincing voters that he is entirely capable of running the country and simultaneously mounting his legal defense.
If support for Likud begins to ebb away, as the ToI poll suggested it will, Netanyahu the politician will be in deep trouble. And then, however improbable this may sound in a country where the words “Benjamin Netanyahu” and “prime minister” have become synonymous, Netanyahu the legal defendant could become a matter for an Israel that has moved on.