Honed over more than two years of attacks on the pillars of Israel’s democracy, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s incendiary assault on his accusers shortly before the start of his corruption trial Sunday was a brilliantly calculated assertion of innocence and victimhood.
Its core thesis, that a strong, pro-annexation, right-wing prime minister is facing an illicit attempt — perpetrated by a vast, leftist alliance of politicians, media, cops and state prosecutors — to oust him because of his ideology and policies, is also demonstrably ridiculous.
It relies on his audience becoming so swept along by the prime minister’s rhetoric — his calibrated mix of grievance and determination, and his citing of numerous ostensible flaws, failures, cover-ups and conspiracies in the marshaling of the “absurd” and “fabricated” charges against him, reinforced on Sunday by the sight of all those mute Likud ministers publicly identifying with his cause — as to forget the gaping logical hole at its center.
It relies, apparently to considerable effect, on short memories.
For it is the fate of Netanyahu’s immediate predecessor Ehud Olmert — the former Likud mayor of Jerusalem and Likud MK and minister, turned Kadima MK, minister and prime minister — that exposes the emptiness at the heart of Netanyahu’s inflammatory allegation that a leftist establishment is engaged in an attempted political coup.
Olmert’s was initially a career of singular political success. He won election to the Knesset at the tender age of 28; rose to ministerial office; left parliament after Likud’s 1992 defeat to Labor’s Yitzhak Rabin in order to successfully challenge Jerusalem’s legendary mayor Teddy Kollek, becoming the first Likud politician to run the capital; and then returned to the Knesset a decade later where he continued his rise all the way to acting prime minister under Ariel Sharon.
Hitherto a fierce opponent of relinquishing territory captured in the 1967 war — he had even opposed Israel’s landmark peace treaty with Egypt — Olmert mirrored Sharon’s late-life radical political shift, backing the prime minister’s unilateral 2005 withdrawal from the Gaza Strip, and following his leader when Sharon abandoned Likud to set up Kadima. When Sharon fell ill in January 2006, Olmert took over, temporarily at first, and then as Israel’s elected prime minister after his and Kadima’s success in the 2006 elections.
The hawkish mayor who had bitterly opposed any division of Jerusalem metamorphosed into a prime ministerial political dove, firmly supporting Palestinian statehood — indeed, offering more to the Palestinians than any Israeli prime minister before or since. In 2008 negotiations with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, Olmert offered to relinquish almost all of the West Bank with one-for-one land swaps, to give the Palestinians sovereign capital territory in Jerusalem, and to cede Israeli sovereignty in the city’s Holy Basin, with an international trusteeship to instead take responsibility for the Old City and its holy sites, including the Temple Mount and the Western Wall.
According to the thesis Netanyahu presented Sunday, and has presented in one form or another during more than two years of seeking to discredit and tar those investigating, indicting and now prosecuting him, this dovish, leftist, Arab-appeasing, land-relinquishing prime minister Olmert would be just the man the leftist elites would want to insure was taking Israel’s most fateful decisions.
In fact, however, precisely as Olmert was presenting his unprecedented statehood offer to Abbas, he was felled — forced from office as criminal investigations into his conduct as mayor gathered pace. Urged by allies and rivals alike, including Netanyahu, to step down from the premiership and focus on his legal defense, Olmert agreed in principle in July 2008 to do so: He delivered a speech promising to keep trying during his final months in office “to bring the negotiations between us and our neighbors to a successful conclusion” even as he was, he said, being subjected to “ceaseless attacks by the self-appointed soldiers of justice, who sought to oust me from my position.”
Now a lame-duck prime minister, Olmert failed in his desperate attempts to finalize terms with Abbas — and a possible deal on Palestinian statehood, on terms highly unlikely to be offered again in the foreseeable future, was averted. Netanyahu took over as prime minister in March 2009, after winning elections that were held earlier than scheduled because of Olmert’s resignation, and has retained power ever since.
All four of the key establishments Netanyahu cites as using foul means to oust him for ideological reasons played a role in Olmert’s downfall
Olmert was indicted that August, and went to jail almost nine years later, at the end of a protracted legal struggle that saw him initially exonerated of some of the charges against him, but later convicted on appeal. All four of the key establishments Netanyahu cites as using foul means to oust him for ideological reasons played a role in Olmert’s downfall: Some of Olmert’s own dovish allies had exerted pressure for him to resign, he had suffered plenty of hostile media coverage, the police were self-evidently determined to get their man, and the state prosecutors pursued him doggedly despite some initial rulings against them. Then Israel’s judges, in whose impartiality Netanyahu conspicuously omitted to express his faith on Sunday, ultimately sent Olmert to jail.
The very sequence of events that helped bring Netanyahu to power in 2009, in other words, demonstrates the inanity of the prime minister’s insistence that he and the entire Israeli right is on trial in his case, victims of a thoroughly politicized process.
“Citizens of Israel,” Netanyahu declared outside the courtroom in the first section of Sunday’s speech, which is worth quoting in full, “what is on trial today is an effort to frustrate the will of the people — the attempt to bring down me and the right-wing camp. For more than a decade, the left has failed to do this at the ballot box. So over the last few years, they have found a new method: elements in the police and the prosecution joined forces with the leftist media — I call them the ‘anyone but Bibi’ gang — to manufacture baseless and absurd cases against me.
“The goal is to bring down a strong prime minister from the right wing and thus keep the right-wing camp away from running the state for many years,” he continued. “By the way, they would not mind if some cooperative poodle came along from the right — those are always around — but me, I am no poodle. I am not willing to adjust my policies to receive better media coverage, I am not prepared to uproot settlements, I am not willing to do all sorts of other things, and therefore I must be removed by any means.”
No. This is manifestly false.
In fact, it was the police and the prosecution that tenaciously brought down his leftist predecessor, a prime minister who had played a central role in uprooting Gaza’s settlements, and who, far more dramatically, was ready to uproot most of those in the West Bank as well.
There can be little doubt that Netanyahu — just like Olmert before him — is convinced he is the victim of a terrible injustice. The charges against him are complex. Case 1000: At what point do gifts from friends become illicit? Case 2000: Does the discussion of a potentially illegal arrangement with a newspaper publisher, an arrangement that did not come to fruition, constitute a crime? Case 4000: Did a series of decisions he made as minister of communication, that allegedly benefited the controlling shareholder of Bezeq to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars, and allegedly set back urgent national internet upgrades by years, constitute an illegal abuse of his office, and were they part of an illicit quid pro quo arrangement via which he attained editorial oversight over the country’s second most popular news website?
The police chief who oversaw the investigations, Netanyahu’s own appointee Roni Alsheich, a former senior Shin Bet officer who grew up in the settlement of Kiryat Arba — no leftist, he — concluded that the prime minister should be charged.
The attorney general — a former IDF chief advocate general, and Netanyahu’s own former cabinet secretary, appointed to the top legal position by Netanyahu — reached the same conclusion. Now, the three judges of Jerusalem District Court will weigh the evidence, affording Netanyahu every legitimate opportunity to plead his case.
As Israel’s prime minister, however aggrieved by his legal plight, Netanyahu is expected to serve as a role model for the rule of law in the country he leads, the country he has served for so long, the country he vowed Sunday to strengthen and safeguard, the country he described in his speech as his “life’s mission.” He failed to do so on Sunday, failed, amid his deplorable onslaught, to even assure the nation that, having castigated Israel’s police and prosecutors, he at least has confidence in Israel’s judges.
Israeli law affords him the right to stay on as prime minister even as he strives to prove his innocence. Much of the electorate applauds this state of affairs. Netanyahu is a formidable prime minister, who has repeatedly won the voters’ confidence, steered Israel through immensely complex and challenging times, advanced its cause on the global stage, built vital international relationships, and who just recently demonstrated highly effective leadership in the battle against COVID-19.
But his beloved Israel deserves more from him than that he abuse his right to retain office while on trial in order to misrepresent the legal process that is playing out, to foment internal dissent, to batter away at the credibility and the legitimacy of the rule of law. And it deserves better from other elected representatives than their sheepish assembly by his side, masked in mute acquiescence, as he levels patently unfounded allegations against his accusers.
Netanyahu was required to present himself in Courtroom 317 of the Jerusalem District Court on Sunday not because a cabal of leftist politicians, journalists, cops and state prosecutors are determined to oust a strong right-wing prime minister, and keep him and his ideological allies from power for years. This is not The State of Israel versus the Israeli right-wing camp. Just ask Ehud Olmert.
Despite his best efforts to mischaracterize the process, and despite his spineless colleagues’ silent complicity in the fable, it is Benjamin Netanyahu, and only Benjamin Netanyahu, who is on trial.