Netanyahu Goes to War—With His Own Justice System | Opinion

The story of Israel is full of political drama. However, when the history of this period is written, November 21st 2019 will go down as one of the country's most dramatic days. The day began with a meeting between Israeli President Reuven "Ruvi" Rivlin and Speaker of the Knesset Yuli Edelstein. There, for the first time in Israel's history, the President was forced to inform the Knesset that both people he had tasked with forming the next government; outgoing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and former IDF Chief of Staff, MK Benny Gantz, had failed. As a result, the Knesset would now have 21 days to propose a potential candidate. If the Knesset also fails to reach a consensus on a prime ministerial candidate, the third election within one year would automatically be scheduled to take place.

The day before had its own drama, as Avigdor Lieberman, head of the Yisrael Beiteinu party and holder of the balance of power between the two main parties in Israel, called a press conference for 1 PM, at which he alleged he would announce whom he would support to form a government. Lieberman allowed Israelis to speculate on whether he would support the formation of a minority government with support from the Arab Parties, or whether he would rejoin the right-wing bloc with the religious parties, despite his continued claims that he would not. In the end, Lieberman proclaimed he would do neither. Lieberman singled out the Arab parties as "a fifth column" and the ultra-religious as anti-Zionist, stating they were both bad for Israel. Lieberman's hatred of the Arab parties was evidently too strong for him to agree to rely on them to join a minority government, even to oust Netanyahu. Since a unity government was out of the question, due to Netanyahu's refusal to agree to a mechanism that he would guarantee he would leave office when the time came, Gantz was forced to return the mandate to form the government back to the President.

The midday meeting at the President's house, however, was only the beginning. Rumors had begun to circulate that Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit would release his final decision on whether to indict Netanyahu that same day. Mandelblit was once a close confidant of the Prime Minister, and like the police commissioner who had first recommended charges be brought against the prime minister, was also appointed by Netanyahu; both men are believed to share Netanyahu's overall political views. For the past few weeks, hearsay has spread that one of the three cases might be closed, or that perhaps the most damaging charge (i.e., bribery) might be dropped. This after Netanyahu's lawyers had presented their case explaining why the case s against him were weak. Finally, late afternoon it was announced that Mandelblit would address the press at 7:30 PM.

However, by 6:30 the news broke: Mandelblit had decided to file charges in all three cases, including the charge of bribery. One hour later, Mandelblit appeared before the cameras and stated that it was with a very heavy heart he had decided to bring these charges. Mandelblit said he worked closely with Netanyahu and respected his abilities, but despite that, the overwhelming evidence left him with no choice but to charge Netanyahu in the three cases, cases which Mandelblit defined as very grave.

The three cases are what have been designated case as 1000, 2000, and 4,000. In Case 1000, Netanyahu has been charged with breach of trust for accepting over $250,000 in cigars, champagne, and jewellery from billionaires Arnon Milchan and James Packer. According to the indictment, the gifts were specifically requested by Netanyahu, and in turn, Netanyahu procured various favors for Milchan. Under Israeli law, a government official is prohibited from receiving gifts.

In Case 2000, Netanyahu has been charged with entertaining a bribe from the publisher of Yedioth Achronot, until recently Israel's largest daily newspaper. In this case there are tapes recording publisher Noni Mozes offering to change the negative coverage in his paper towards Netanyahu to positive reporting, if Netanyahu could convince Sheldon Adelson, Netanyahu's patron and owner of the free Yisrael Hayom newspaper, to refrain from printing a Friday edition, which would compete with Yedioth's lucrative weekend edition. According to the indictment, while Netanyahu did not act on this proposal, he led Mozes to think he was working on it, and received better than usual coverage at a time right before elections.

Case 4000 is the most serious case, as in it, Netanyahu has been charged with bribery, for making regulatory decisions—against the recommendations of the professional civil servants—benefiting Bezeq (Israel's largest telecom,) controlled by Shaul Elovich; the decisions profited Bezeq to the tune of hundred of millions, and cost the Israeli public dearly. In return, Netanyahu and his wife requested that certain stories appear on Walla, one of Israel's largest online news portals, also owned by Elovich. There were reportedly hundreds of requests, which included suggestions on who to hire and fire.

After Mendelblit summarized all of the cases, he repeated how sad he was to have to bring these charges. Mendelblit confided that to his chagrin, the decisions were forced on him by the mountain of evidence, his respect for the rule of law, and the seriousness of the allegations. In other words, he had no choice. Mendelblit also decried the attacks on the judiciary during the past months, as well as earlier attacks on the police, reaffirming that no one acted due to improper partisan beliefs, rather, everyone followed the evidence and the law. He begged those disparaging the institutions of justice to stop their attacks.

Netanyahu took to the air an hour later. He too said this was a sad day and restated his belief in the rule of law. However, Netanyahu then went on to say that the whole case against him was a fabrication; a conspiracy constructed to oust a right-wing government; a case which was tainted from the beginning. Netanyahu said that this was an attempt to subvert democracy and demanded that someone investigate the investigators. Then, he berated: "This is an attempted coup d'état using false pretenses at the end of a tainted process of skewed investigations. A process designed to overthrow an incumbent Prime Minister — me. I will not allow the lie to win and will continue to lead the country."

So where does this leave the Israeli political system? According to Israeli law, an indicted Prime Minister may remain in office until his final judicial disposition (trial and appeals). In Israel that process can take years. However, Netanyahu is not currently a regular prime minister. He is a caretaker prime minister, in the second caretaker government in a row, with no mandate from the people to remain in office. Israeli law is silent on whether someone who has been indicted can be tasked to form a government. Many believe the answer is no — certainly in a case where the potential prime minister has been charged with bribery.

If Netanyahu is told by the courts that he cannot lead a new government, or members of his own party finally gain the courage to challenge him, then a unity government could be formed during the 20 days that remain before another election would be mandated. If not, Israel could enter into an election in which the leader of the second-largest party and current acting Prime Minister is under indictment, and potentially unable to form a government when the time comes.

What is clear is that Netanyahu plans a no holds barred fight against the justice system. It appears he sees destroying whatever trust Israelis have in that system along the way as acceptable collateral damage.

As of yesterday, 46 percent of Israeli believed that if indicted Netanyahu should resign; 17 percent maintained he should take a leave of absence, and 30 percent contended Netanyahu should stay no matter what. Unfortunately for the country, Netanyahu has based his defense on those 30 percent and the hope that he will succeed in his campaign to undermine the limited trust that Israelis have in the justice system. Those opposing Netanyahu are hoping that enough members of Likud gain the courage to bring an end to the Netanyahu era. Either way, Israel can look forward to weeks if not months of political turmoil.

Marc Schulman is a multimedia historian.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own.