I was talking with a friend yesterday. He is very well-informed and concerned about Israel and the Jewish people, and the prospects for our survival. But he does not live in Israel, so he asked me “what about the legal problems facing the Prime Minister? Would he provoke an international crisis to distract attention from them?”
Well, what about them? It’s something I generally avoid talking about, probably for the same reason that I avoid talking about the US President. I just don’t want to hear, yet again, the talking points of both sides. But since this blog can be a one-way conversation – I can choose to ignore comments if I wish – I am going to say a few words about Mr. Netanyahu.
Let me get this out of the way: I voted for him in 2015 and I would vote for him again if an election were held today. Of course he has his flaws, but I think I join many Israelis who do not see among the potential candidates to lead the nation one that could better ensure our security. And that is the issue, light years ahead of the price of apartments and his wife’s taste in champagne.
Not that I think that all of his policies are optimal. I would like a Prime Minister who pushed harder to settle Jews in all of the Land of Israel (my friend and I also talked a lot about this), because I think that – after dealing with the Iranian threat – is the single most important thing we can do to ensure the survival of the Jewish people.
I would like a Prime Minister who is a little less obsequious toward the US, and who does more to reduce our dependence on it (although Netanyahu has made some very significant accomplishments in improving our relationship with other nations, like India, China, Russia, and some Eastern European and African countries).
Personally, he is arrogant, he holds his cards very close to his vest, does not delegate authority well, and tries too hard to prevent potential rivals from gaining strength. Sometimes he makes enemies out of those who should be allies, because he’s threatened by their potential as possible challengers.
In order to understand the PM’s legal troubles it’s necessary to understand something about the social and political ocean that he swims in. Netanyahu represents the continuation of Menachem Begin’s revolt against the domination of Israeli politics, culture and economy by the Ashkenazi socialist Left. But Israel is a democratic country and not a fascist dictatorship, so the revolution (some might say unfortunately) did not include a purge of the old guard in politics, the legal system, academics, culture and – definitely not least – the media.
The disasters wrought by the Oslo accords and the resulting Second Intifada (some call it the “Oslo war”) and the withdrawal from Gaza sealed the demise of the Left as a political bloc. The Left keeps trying, but Israelis haven’t forgotten what was done to them in the name of ‘peace’, and won’t vote for them. But even though polls show that the right-wing parties are much more likely to come out on top in an election, the media and other unelected elites are strongly in the camp of the left. And their attitude toward PM Netanyahu is much like that of the Democrats in America toward Donald Trump: they hate him passionately.
There are at present at least four police investigations that to some extent relate to the PM and, naturally, his wife, who is also a prime target for his enemies. He is accused of 1) providing favors in return for cigars, champagne and other presents, of 2) making a deal with the publisher of the Yediot Aharonot newspaper to receive favorable coverage in return for acting to suppress the circulation of Yediot’s competitor, the free Israel Hayom newspaper, of 3) being somehow connected to a kickback scheme in connection with the purchase of submarines from a German company, and of 4) providing favors to the management and important shareholders of telecommunications company Bezeq in return for favorable coverage on a Bezeq-owned news website). Sara Netanyahu is accused of using public funds for her private benefit.
Overall, some of this is invented, much of it is exaggerated, some is probably true, some is politics as usual, and most comes from informants that the police have put the squeeze on. The police have recommended to the Attorney General that the PM be indicted on charges related to 1) and 2) above, and that his wife be indicted for her actions as well. In my opinion, even if the worst accusations are true, none of them move the needle for corruption by a head of state by world standards. Nevertheless, the law is the law. It is up to the Attorney General to decide whether to indict Netanyahu or drop the charges.
What is outrageous here – and Netanyahu is perfectly right in calling this out – is the behavior of the police and news media (did I mention that the media, especially the broadcast media, are almost 100% on the side of Netanyahu’s political foes?).
The investigations have been going on for at least a year, with Netanyahu or his wife being interrogated by the police multiple times for hours at a time. Every time he or one of numerous others is questioned, including those who have agreed to be state’s witnesses in order to avoid possible prosecution themselves (among them his main political rival Yair Lapid), the nightly “Hadashot” newscast that most Israelis watch leads with a story based on unsourced leaks from the police and other parties involved in the cases against Netanyahu. Newspapers echo the accusations the following day. It’s hard to imagine a clearer case of the media appointing itself judge, jury and executioner.
Note that most of this took place before the investigations were complete and the police had transmitted their recommendations to the Attorney General, who of course has not yet decided whether to indict the PM (there have been weekly demonstrations calling for him to do so led by Netanyahu’s opponents in front of the Attorney General’s home, and demonstrators even entered a synagogue where the AG was saying kaddish for his mother).
Netanyahu likes to say that his opponents, unable to beat him at the ballot box, are trying to force him out undemocratically. It’s hard to disagree with this assessment. He is not required by law to resign even if he is indicted and possibly not even if he is convicted of a crime, but practically speaking, an indictment would put him in hot water with his own coalition. It could also bring about a constitutional crisis between the government and the Supreme Court.
One can understand why the Americans require a process of impeachment to remove a sitting president. There is an overwhelmingly political aspect to the prosecution of a head of state which cannot be ignored; the American system makes it explicit, while the Israeli system tries to shut its eyes to it. There was an attempt to pass a law that exempts a sitting PM from prosecution for certain kinds of crimes, but it didn’t get off the ground. A law did pass that will prevent the police from making public their recommendations to the Attorney General, but it will not apply retroactively to Netanyahu’s cases.
As I said, Netanyahu has his flaws; but his claim to have dedicated his career and his life to the security of the state of Israel is indisputable. So when my friend asked me if I thought Netanyahu would provoke a crisis in order to draw attention from his legal issues, my answer was “absolutely not.” Although his enemies like to attribute every imaginable moral defect to him, there isn’t the slightest doubt that he puts the state and the Jewish people ahead of his personal interests.
I think a plurality of Israelis agree. A new poll, taken immediately after the latest “revelations” of possible misconduct in the Bezeq affair shows the Likud winning 34 seats in the Knesset, as opposed to the 30 that it holds today.
Hashem and history will ultimately pass a final judgment on Benjamin Netanyahu, regardless of what the temporal courts here decide. I believe that judgment will be that he was one of our greatest Prime Ministers.