For the past month or so, protest demonstrations against the Netanyahu government have been gaining momentum, with the number of people participating growing every week. The protestors raise a range of issues – economic justice and police brutality are two examples – and there even seems to be a set of demands that are crystallizing. But the major thrust of the protests is the demand that Netanyahu resign because of his indictment for bribery and corruption in three separate cases.
What is the logic behind this demand? Why should a prime minister have to resign because he is on trial? Isn’t he entitled to a presumption of innocence until he is convicted of a crime?
During the last three election campaigns, Blue and White – currently the Likud’s coalition partner – argued that Netanyahu had to go because Israel deserves a full-time prime minister, and involvement with his defense against the charges would inevitably steer his attention away from matters of state. But that is not the right answer. Netanyahu is capable and hard working. It’s entirely possible that with the right ministers and advisors, he might be able to manage his trial and run the country at the same time.
When Prime Minister Rabin resigned in April 1977 because his wife had not closed the bank account she opened in the United States where he had served as ambassador – having an account outside of Israel was illegal at the time – his resignation was widely understood as a matter of simple morality. The leader of the nation, everyone understood, must be exemplary in every way. The implication of moral stain that an indictment suggested disqualified a person from office unless and until he made amends. The word used in Hebrew for serving in high office is “lekhahen” from the word “Kohen” or priest. Like the priests, who could be disqualified from serving in the Temple because of physical blemishes, high officials in the Israeli government had to be ethically unblemished.
But these are less innocent times. Unblemished is not much of an option these days. Moral blemish is also not the reason that Bibi must go.
The real reason that an indicted prime minister must resign from office is that if he continues to serve, it is almost inevitable that he will manipulate national events in order to try to influence his trial. In an interview with Channel 2 in the spring of 2008, after Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s indictment, this is exactly what Netanyahu himself explained: “We have to suspect, and this is very well founded, that a person under indictment will make fateful decisions based on his need to survive rather than the needs of the country.”
In other words, a prime minister wields incredible power. When faced with the threat of punishment and humiliation that a conviction would mean, it would take a saint to resist the temptation to use that power in order to influence his own trial. And whatever merits Mr. Netanyahu possesses, even those that see him as a kind of messiah would have to concede he’s no saint.
Of course, the probability that Netanyahu will try to influence events in order to evade conviction is already evident. Netanyahu put the country through three elections; many believe that his goal was to win enough votes to form a narrow right wing coalition that would pass laws granting him immunity. Yisrael Beytenu’s Avigdor Liberman prevented that from happening; and after the third election he had little choice but to create a unity government with Benny Gantz.
Now, within weeks of forming that coalition, Netanyahu is already violating the coalition agreement he so solemnly signed, ostensibly in order to form an emergency Corona Unity Government. The agreement included an important clause saying that both sides would approve a two year budget. That clause is crucial to Gantz because one of the only ways to break up the coalition government and guarantee new elections, thus preventing Gantz from becoming prime minister in 2021, is if the coalition cannot pass a budget. The one year budget Netanyahu is now insisting on, means that Netanyahu could break up the government next year – or this year, as seems increasingly likely – and call for new elections.
Informed sources say that Bibi’s desire for new elections isn’t only about preventing Gantz from becoming prime minister, but about the hope that with a new constellation of parties in the coalition, Bibi could replace the current minister of justice, Avi Nissenkorn of Blue and White, with a loyalist who could influence the outcome of his trial. Even if that is not true, the “well founded suspicion” that it is demonstrates the toxicity of the current situation. As long as Bibi keeps serving while his trial continues, it will be impossible to shake the feeling that he is playing three dimensional chess — with our lives as the chess pieces — in order to checkmate the justice system.
It’s not Bibi’s fault. Bibi’s not Superman, or the moral equivalent. He deserves a fair trial, but the trial won’t be fair as long as he is prime minister. The survival instinct is strong in all of us, and all the more so in a man of his ambition and passion. That’s precisely why Netanyahu must resign.