The prime minister of Israel, Benjamin (Bibi) Netanyahu, appears to think he’s above the law.
On January 1, as widely expected, he shamelessly asked the Knesset to grant him immunity from prosecution. Netanyahu dropped this bombshell about five weeks after Attorney-General Avichai Mandelblit indicted him on criminal charges of fraud, bribery and breach of trust.
Having fallaciously compared the indictment to an “attempted coup,” Netanyahu — the first sitting Israeli leader to be charged with crimes — now claims self-servingly that his request is merely a “temporary” measure valid for only one parliamentary term, and that immunity itself is a “foundation stone of democracy.”
Netanyahu’s supporters in the Likud Party have gone even further in their attempt to subvert the hallowed principle of the rule of law. Likud’s chief whip, Miki Zohar, contends that Netanyahu is being politically persecuted, a far-fetched assertion which blends in conveniently with Netanyahu’s preposterous narrative that he’s the victim of a “witch hunt.”
Netanyahu, who has strenuously denied wrongdoing, was indicted for good reason. Mandelblit, his former cabinet secretary, accused him of giving major media figures favors worth tens of millions of dollars in exchange for positive news coverage and expensive gifts ranging from cigars to champagne.
Having been exposed as a corrupt politician who can be bought, he should have done the right thing and resigned. In 2008, when the then prime minister, Ehud Olmert, was suspected of corruption, Netanyahu, then the leader of the opposition, urged him to step aside immediately. This was before Olmert had been indicted by the attorney general.
As Netanyahu said back then, “A prime minister steeped up to his neck in investigations doesn’t have a moral or public mandate to make such fateful decisions regarding the State of Israel. There is a real, not unfounded fear that he will make decisions based on his own interests of political survivability rather than the normal interest.”
Facing the prospect of an indictment, Olmert had the wisdom, the courage and the class to resign, sparing the country the tumult of turmoil and uncertainty. Nearly 12 years on, Netanyahu — Israel’s longest serving prime minister — is hypocritically flouting his own sound advice, adamantly sticking to his guns and dragging Israel through the mud in the runup to Israel’s third general election on March 2.
Instead of manfully accepting his indictment with grace and dignity, and preparing to defend himself in a court of law, Netanyahu, in true populistic style, has launched a concerted attack on the media and the courts. Like his embattled and impeached ally in the United States, President Donald Trump, Netanyahu refrains from discussing the merits of the grave charges before him.
Netanyahu’s desperate effort to evade justice and delay the criminal process is nothing less than disgraceful. “I never imagined we would see the day when a prime minister of Israel would avoid standing before the law and the courts,” said his chief rival, Benny Gantz, the leader of the centrist Blue and White Party.
No one, of course, is surprised by Netanyahu’s unacceptable behavior. From the outset of his checkered career, his modus operandi has been political survival, even at the risk of widening divisions in an already fractured nation. Immunity, if granted, might well keep him out of prison and, perhaps, burnish his legacy.
Some observers had hoped that the Supreme Court would issue a ruling barring an indicted prime minister from forming a government. But on January 2, regrettably, the justices rejected a petition calling for Netanyahu’s disqualification, saying they were unable to hand down a verdict because it was “premature” and “theoretical.”
Speaking on behalf of her colleagues, Supreme Court President Esther Hayut explained that the petition in question might be more relevant if Netanyahu succeeds in cobbling together a new government, his fourth consecutive one, following the forthcoming election.
By all accounts, the outcome of the next election will be no different than the previous two, which took place last year in April and September. Polls suggest that the Blue and White Party will win a slightly greater number of seats than the right-wing Likud, but the political deadlock will remain more or less intact.
Facing an array of serious external and internal challenges, Israel cannot afford such an extensive period of paralysis. Being an astute politician, Netanyahu should understand that he has no right to subject Israelis to this tortured political theater. For Israel’s sake, he should draw the appropriate conclusions and withdraw his request for immunity and tender his resignation.
He can then, in all good conscience, fight with all his might to clear his name.