Israel media review

Will he, won’t he: 6 things to know for December 31

PM announces prime-time press statement ahead of deadline to request immunity and crucial High Court hearing, only to cancel an hour later; pundits read into it as they please

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US correspondent

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends an event marking the eighth night of Hanukkah, on December 29, 2019. (Tomer Neuberg/FLASH90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends an event marking the eighth night of Hanukkah, on December 29, 2019. (Tomer Neuberg/FLASH90)

1. Why are we doing this again? The High Court of Justice held a preliminary hearing Tuesday on whether a lawmaker facing criminal indictment can be tapped to form a coalition — a potentially high-stakes decision that could disrupt Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s political future.

  • But right off the bat, Chief Justice Esther Hayut wondered out loud why the petition seeking to bar the premier from continued rule is even being heard before anyone knows the results of the upcoming election, giving more than a hint to the direction in which the top legal body is leaning.
  • The remark allows Channel 13’s Akiva Novick to summarize the hearing well before its conclusion, tweeting, “in short, the High Court threw the petitioners down all the stairs.”
  • But attorney Daphna Holtz-Lachner continued to argue her case, claiming that the current law’s leniency toward an indicted prime minister only refers to a serving premier, not an MK seeking a new appointment to the post. “This is not a political issue; this is a legal issue. The role of the judiciary is to make sure that the people elect people who work for the good of the people. Democracy must be protected. We can see how the defendant has already acted to attack legal authorities,” she said in court.
  • In a statement of his own preempting the hearing, Netanyahu blasted “those who are trying to drag the Supreme Court into the political turf to legally deny and thwart my candidacy for prime minister. I do not think that the Supreme Court of Israel will fall into this trap. In a democracy those who decide who will lead the people are only the people and not anyone else. This is how it has been and this is how it always will be.”
  • Reacting to the High Court’s apparent unwillingness to make a decision on the Netanyahu matter, MK Gideon Sa’ar’s spokesman Jason Pearlman tweets, “I’m going to say it… between Mandelblit, Liberman and the Supreme Court… 2019 has just been the year of “political prick-tease.” Will someone please just…make a decision… there’s a country to run here for Heaven’s sake!!!!” Like the High Court, Mandelblit too avoided offering a legal opinion on the matter and said he would defer to the High Court. Yisrael Beytenu party leader Avigdor Liberman refused to side with either Blue and White or Likud in what ultimately has led to two additional elections this year.

2. Hopefully no one noticed: At 5 p.m. on Monday, Netanyahu’s spokesman announced that the prime minister would be delivering a statement to the press, which pundits across the board quickly determined would be used by the premier to announce that he will be requesting immunity from prosecution. At 5:45 p.m., his spokesman announced that the statement had been canceled.

  • Kan public broadcaster’s Michael Shemesh speculates that Netanyahu was wary of angering the High Court justices ahead of their consequential hearing regarding his political future.
  • Haaretz’s Yossi Verter writes that Netanyahu and his advisers recognized that requesting immunity is a “matter to be ashamed of, not a flag you wave on prime-time TV.” The left-wing columnist argues that flaunting the issue in such a matter would have further demonstrated to the High Court that he is not fit to be allowed to form a government.
  • Channel 13’s Raviv Drucker says that despite the cancellation of his press statement, Netanyahu has already drafted his letter asking the Knesset for immunity ahead of tomorrow’s deadline.
  • The letter makes three arguments, Drucker claims: A trial during the election or during his next term in office, if he wins, would hurt the public and would severely hamper the Knesset’s ability to function. His prosecution amounted to discrimination against him, as other politicians committed acts identical to his, but have not faced corruption indictments. The indictments were being issued in “bad faith” — effectively an argument that Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit was attempting to topple Netanyahu for political reasons, not for actual criminal misdeeds. Netanyahu says in the letter that Mandelblit decided to indict him too quickly after the prime minister’s October pre-indictment hearings, and had allowed a constant stream of leaks to the media from the investigations.

3. One man’s cornerstone: While the majority of the public (51% according to a Channel 12 poll) appears to oppose the idea of its prime minister requesting immunity from prosecution, Netanyahu will rely on a loud minority to speak in his defense.

  • However, the usually loyal Israel Hayom largely ignores the issue entirely. The High Court hearing makes the freebie’s front page, but it is accompanied by none of the typical op-eds on the matter as its columnists find other issues to rant about. Way in the back, however, Galit Distel writes that “the fact that Netanyahu started talking about immunity as a formal option without apologizing is a welcome change. Many of his supporters feel that it is his democratic duty and not just his personal right. Now he must listen to the public’s right, which is ready to back him up in any way, provided that the judicial coup in Israel is immediately restrained.”
  • On the other end of the spectrum, Blue and White’s No. 2, Yair Lapid, assails the premier, saying the leader had “boldly lied to his voters.” Lapid is apparently referring to Netanyahu’s answer to a question during a Channel 12 interview earlier this year as to whether he would seek Knesset immunity: “What? No way,” in a clip that Blue and White has already started using in its campaign videos.
  • ToI’s Raoul Wootliff and Raphael Ahren provide the details for how Netanyahu will go about seeking immunity from prosecution — what the premier calls the cornerstone of democracy — if he chooses to do so.
  • In an interview, Suzie Navot, a professor of constitutional law at the Stricks Law School in Rishon Lezion, says that Netanyahu could indeed argue that charging him would hurt the will of the people. At the same time, she believes that the law grants immunity to legislators only for minor offenses, and not for the bribery, fraud and breach of trust charges being brought against the premier.

4. My enemy’s enemy: Also making headlines is the brewing ceasefire deal between Israel and Hamas, which has the Palestinian Authority wondering why it’s being shafted for the terror group that vows to destroy the Jewish state.

  • PA Prime Minister Mohammed Shtayyeh tells the weekly cabinet meeting in Ramallah that the emerging ceasefire plan “is another piece of evidence of the efforts aimed at strengthening the division [between the Gaza Strip and the West Bank].”
  • PA President Mahmoud Abbas calls Israel’s move to achieve ceasefire with Hamas while withholding funds from Ramallah and advancing settlement activity in the West Bank a “strange paradox.”
  • ToI’s Avi Issacharoff writes that the Hamas ceasefire is part of Netanyahu and Defense Minister Naftali Bennett’s plan to achieve a “disastrous” quasi two-state solution between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean sea in which one is in Gaza run by an emboldened Hamas while the remainder of the territory, including the West Bank, is run by a less democratic Israel.
  • “In the simplest terms, Israel is punishing those who have vowed to work toward a peace agreement, and doing all it can to assist those who fire rockets, carry out terror attacks and call again and again for jihad against Israel,” Issacharoff argues.
  • While Israel is deducting tax refunds from the PA due to its payments to security prisoners, Issacharoff says it is only avoiding similar actions against Hamas because it is “afraid” of the terror group’s response.
  • Haaretz’s editorial comes out in support of the brewing agreement with Hamas, but similarly criticizes Israel’s punitive actions against the PA. “It is actually evidence of a distorted worldview, in which the Israeli public can’t swallow positive diplomatic steps toward the Palestinians in Gaza without other Palestinians in the West Bank being subjected to sanctions of some kind or another.”

5. Still reeling: Jews in Monsey and across the US are working to process the country’s latest anti-Semitic attack that left five people injured at a Hasidic rabbi’s house two days ago.

  • “Anti-Semitism has never been so bad. It’s becoming more and more of an issue. It’s crazy,” 23-year-old Chaim Kaplan tells AFP outside the Chabad Lubavitch World Headquarters in Crown Heights. “What are you gonna do?” asks Kaplan. “It’s never been the Jewish attitude to back off. We’ve always been persecuted. It is what it is. We gotta fight it with love.”
  • “I tell my family to go on and do whatever they have to do, like go to school and go to pray,” says Ron Fulop in Brooklyn’s Williamsburg neighborhood, also home to a large ultra-Orthodox Jewish community.
  • Meanwhile, New York Mayor Bill de Blasio announces a series of measures to tackle what he called an anti-Semitism “crisis” sweeping the United States. “It has taken a more and more violent form,” de Blasio tells NPR, adding that the “forces of hate have been unleashed.”
  • De Blasio says he has already started increasing police presence in Jewish communities of New York, as well as adding security cameras and multi-ethnic community safety patrols.
  • “We are scared,” Yitzchok Schwartz, 17, tells AFP. “We also don’t know what to say to the kids so they are not scared,” Schwartz added.

6. Ringing it in: With 2020 hours away, Jewish publications are looking back at the past year and decade and counting down their most memorable and influential stories.

  • Here are 12 stories in 2019 that made Times of Israel reporters cry, laugh, cringe, cheer.
  • ToI’s Startup editor Shoshana Solomon celebrates innovation by marking Israel’s 10 biggest tech deals of the decade
  • JTA puts together its top 10 Jewish stories of 2019: From rising anti-Semitism to Tiffany Haddish.
  • Happy New Year from our Israel media review family to yours!

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