The Benjamin Netanyahu who addressed a large proportion of Israel’s voters on Monday night — his appearance at the start of the night’s main TV news broadcasts was estimated to garner a 40 percent rating — was a prime minister rattled and fighting for his life. Not his political life, in the narrow definition: he looks set, for now, to win re-election in April. But his long-term career — his capacity to continue to hold office before, during, and after those elections, and to depart the scene at a time of his choosing.
Throughout the course of the three investigations of corruption against him, carried out by the police under the close oversight of the state prosecution and the attorney general, Netanyahu has repeated the mantra that “there is nothing” to the allegations, and that therefore “there will be nothing” to hold against him when the evidence is weighed. But in the last few days, indications have been multiplying that Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit — the official who has to decide whether to indict him — is concluding that, actually, there is something.
Instead of closing the cases, as Netanyahu would have hoped he would, and still hopes he will — Mandelblit has reportedly consulted with veteran legal officials about the propriety of announcing an intention to indict, subject to a hearing, in the course of an election campaign. Caught by a camera crew last week, and asked whether Netanyahu was correct to contend that a prime minister need not step down before the hearing process was completed, Mandelblit allowed himself to be drawn. Rather than ignoring the question, or dismissing it as irrelevant, inappropriate, or premature, the attorney general replied that “clearly” there was indeed no such obligation.
The thrust of Netanyahu’s remarks on Monday was twofold: a reiteration of his newly amended mantra — that it would be “unjust,” as he put it, to initiate a hearing process prior to the April 9 elections, because that lengthy procedure could not possibly be completed before election day. And a request that he be allowed to directly confront the three state’s witnesses in the investigations against him, his former employees Ari Harow, Nir Hefetz, and Shlomo Filber. He had twice asked his investigators to facilitate such a confrontation, he complained, and twice been rebuffed. “How can you get to the essence of the truth if I can’t confront the witnesses?” he asked almost plaintively.
“I wanted to look them in the eye,” he said. “I have nothing to hide.” And so he was now renewing the “demand” to go face-to-face with his accusers, and “as far as I am concerned, it can be on live television.”
Unnamed sources close to the investigation were quoted on the TV news immediately after his broadcast as deriding the notion that Netanyahu was being unfairly treated over the confrontation issue, dismissing it as a red herring. All the allegations against Netanyahu were put to him for his response, they said, and no confrontation would have changed the course of the probe or led either side to change its stance.
Legal commentators also swiftly noted that Ehud Olmert, a former prime minister who went to jail for corruption, was not placed in a pre-indictment confrontation with the state’s witness against him, his former close aide, Shula Zaken. They also said that Sara Netanyahu, a suspect in Case 4000, which is believed to be the most serious of the three probes, refused a confrontation with Hefetz. And they observed that Israeli judicial precedent makes clear that there is no legal requirement for such confrontations.
In his TV appearance — not a press conference; no journalists; not even TV camera crews; just a broadcast sent out via the internet — Netanyahu, however, was patently not appealing to the state prosecutors. This was, rather, the latest stage of the prime minister’s relentless effort to keep as much of the electorate as possible on his side.
By utilizing the live broadcast to set out his legal complaints and demands, the prime minister underlined the extent to which he is convinced that his own well-being and that of the country are intertwined, and that those who constitute trouble for him constitute trouble for Israel.
The live prime ministerial broadcast to the nation is a channel of direct communication usually reserved for events of momentous national import. Netanyahu had last strayed from that norm less than two months ago, when he used such an appearance to head off an election threat by asserting that Israel was entering a period of acute security dangers. This claim proved to relate to the IDF’s campaign against Hezbollah’s attack tunnels — a serious threat, to be sure, but patently not so acute a danger as to require a halt to all party politics, since the prime minister himself called elections barely a month later.
By using the live broadcast to set out his legal complaints and demands, the prime minister underlined the extent to which he is convinced that his own well-being and that of the country are intertwined, and that those who constitute trouble for him constitute trouble for Israel.
He raised his familiar assertion that his legal entanglements are a political vendetta, pursued by the political left and the leftist media, who know they cannot bring him down by fair means, and thus are resorting to foul, with “unstinting pressure” on the attorney general to indict him. Highlighting his nationalist credentials, he claimed that were he to order an Israeli withdrawal to the pre-1967 lines or divide Jerusalem, or otherwise endanger Israeli security, as he indicated the left would do, “I could end this witch hunt against me and my family.” But, of course, he reassured potential voters, he would do no such thing, despite what he asserted was the unprecedented vilification to which he has been subjected.
All opinion polls to date indicate that a substantial part of the electorate indeed remains in the prime minister’s corner. As things stand, just over three months before election day, Netanyahu will be re-elected, and will be on course in early summer to overtake David Ben-Gurion as cumulatively the longest-serving prime minister in the history of Israel.
However, unless former IDF chief of staff Benny Gantz, about to dip his toe into the boiling political waters, proves as successful as did another ex-IDF chief, Ehud Barak, in ousting Netanyahu in 1999, the prime minister’s central problem will not lie with the electorate, or his political rivals, but rather with Mandelblit and the state prosecution. Which is why Monday’s broadcast was not so much misguided as irrelevant.
Netanyahu began his remarks by stressing that the legal hierarchy is a foundational pillar of Israeli democracy, and that he has faith in it. “There are judges in Jerusalem,” he said, using a familiar quote that, he may not have recalled, was most resonantly employed of late by Ehud Olmert, in 2012, at one of the happier junctures of his legal travails.
His contentions, added Netanyahu, did not constitute “an attack on the rule of law,” but rather “legitimate criticism.” Maybe so. He was not as coarse as his Culture Minister Miri Regev, who declared on Sunday that it appeared Mandelblit was “trying to join the chorus that aims to topple Netanyahu.” But the complaints were plainly designed to undermine public faith in the fair conduct of the investigations against him.
Yet Mandelblit, if he was even watching Netanyahu’s live broadcast, will not have heard anything new and will not be moved by the prime minister’s pleas. A Netanyahu appointee and a man whose personal integrity has not been credibly challenged, the attorney general told a conference in Haifa last Thursday: “We’re working professionally — only the evidence will have a say.”
The prime minister’s broadcast to the nation, delivered with calculation, aplomb and a whiff of desperation, was widely watched and was likely keenly debated among Israelis voters. It might prove to help or hinder his re-election campaign. But it won’t move Avichai Mandelblit. He won’t be affected by Netanyahu’s faintly absurd effort to pressure him into doing his job differently. And, ultimately, he’s the only one who matters.