Israeli police recommended a month ago that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu be indicted on criminal charges in connection with three corruption, bribery and fraud cases against him.
These are extremely serious accusations that should concern Israeli voters. Lest it be forgotten, this was the third time in a year that the police had filed this recommendation. One can safely assume that their investigation was honest and thorough. Recommendations of such gravity are not issued lightly. After all, no sitting Israeli prime minister has ever been indicted on a felony.
Claims by Netanyahu and his associates that he’s the victim of a “witch hunt” are specious and self-serving. In the spirit of fairness, the police carefully examined the evidence and concluded that crimes were committed.
Fighting for his personal integrity and political survival after serving four terms in office, Netanyahu contends that the charges are false and will “yield nothing.” He may yet be right, but his simplistic dismissal of this compelling case should be cause for pause.
It now falls on Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit to decide what to do next. Mandelblit may be in something of a bind because he was once employed by Netanyahu as his cabinet secretary. He is thus under tremendous pressure to be as impartial as possible so as to fend off accusations that he’s in thrall to Netanyahu and not acting in the country’s best interests.
If Mandelblit acts in conformity with the police recommendation, as he may yet before the April 9 general election, he will have to summon Netanyahu for a hearing, which may drag on for months. And if he decides that the evidence stands up to scrutiny, he can legally indict the prime minister.
This is where the situation gets particularly dicey.
Speaking to reporters in Brazil, where he attended the inauguration of its newly-elected pro-Israel president, Jair Bolsonaro, Netanyahu said he would not leave office if Mandelblit presses charges.
“If that happens, I won’t resign,” he declared in no uncertain terms.
Contending he is not legally obliged to step down, he said, “Israel is a country of law, and (it) does not require that a prime minister resign during the process of a hearing.” Netanyahu further argued that Israeli democracy would be dealt “a terrible blow” if he were forced to tender his resignation before the hearing ended.
From a strictly legal point of view, Netanyahu is correct. The law clearly states he would only have to resign if convicted of a crime or if the appeal process had run its course.
Alternatively, the Knesset could demand his resignation.
When a reporter reminded Netanyahu he had urged one of his predecessors, Ehud Olmert, to resign because he was “up to his neck” in corruption charges and thus had no “public or moral mandate to make fateful decisions,” Netanyahu claimed the comparison was invalid.
“I said (Olmert) couldn’t initiate a major political plan on the eve of the elections,” he said in a direct reference to Olmert’s peace talks with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. “I stand by that opinion. I don’t intend to initiate a major political initiative on the eve of elections.”
Netanyahu is really playing with words.
First, as his lamentable record shows, he has no intention of engaging the Palestinians in meaningful peace negotiations. Firmly attached to the status quo, he prefers conflict management to conflict resolution. Second, given the region’s volatility, Netanyahu may well have to make important decisions, with long-term consequences, as Mandelblit mulls his fate.
If Mandelblit levels charges against Netanyahu, the prime minister must draw the appropriate conclusion. He should step aside and appoint an interim successor until this sordid matter has been fully settled. Under such circumstances, Israel would be better without Netanyahu at the helm.