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Justice in the courtroom, not in the streets

Our level-headed, intelligent, rational prime minister has lost his good judgment and is inciting against some of the most important institutions of state
Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit addresses the press after announcing his decision to indict Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on bribery, fraud and breach of trust charges, at the Justice Ministry in Jerusalem on November 21, 2019. (Menahem Kahana/AFP)
Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit addresses the press after announcing his decision to indict Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on bribery, fraud and breach of trust charges, at the Justice Ministry in Jerusalem on November 21, 2019. (Menahem Kahana/AFP)

A double watershed was crossed last Thursday. For the first time in our history, an incumbent prime minister was charged with severe criminal offenses. An hour later, the same prime minister launched a vicious attack against the State Prosecutor’s Office, the attorney general and the Israel Police, all of them incorporated in the executive branch at which he stands at the helm, and asserted that they were plotting a coup against him.

It is important to emphasize that only blindly self-righteous political opponents of Netanyahu, devoid of any hint of integrity, could describe the prime minister merely as a defendant accused of bribery, fraud, and breach of trust. Benjamin Netanyahu is one of the most important leaders in the history of Israel, the man who steers the ship of state with a steady hand.

On the other hand, only obsessive paranoia and a faulty grasp on reality could attribute political intentions to the attorney general. Avichai Mandelblit is a professional civil servant, nonpartisan and eminently fair; no one is better qualified than he is to decide how to proceed in the Netanyahu cases.

A tragedy is unfolding on the Israeli stage, in which two patriots who have devoted their lives to the common good appear on our screens on the very same evening, each accusing the other: one, the AG, acting as organ of the state, exercising his authority; the other, the PM, motivated by his personal pain and anguish. The public is watching and wondering.

Israel`s ability to survive as a nation depends on the basic trust of its citizens in the state’s institutions. Even when we are in total disagreement with the policies of an incumbent prime minister, there is no doubting our common mutual-obligation. Beyond all disagreements, the fundamental “we” that guides Israeli society commands us to obey the orders of state institutions.  . Citizens obey their elected leader and carry out his decisions, with their fateful implications for all of them; similarly, all of them, and certainly the elected leader, must obey – and call on others to obey – the authority of the institutions responsible for enforcing the law in democratic regimes.

I am grateful to the prime minister for his level-headedness, restraint, ability to stand up under pressure, and the wisdom with which he has directed the use of our national power over the last decade. It is thanks to his measured leadership in the face of populist winds, that our sons and daughters have not been sent to fight a full-scale war in the last decade. This makes it all the more disappointing to discover that the very same level-headed, intelligent, and rational prime minister has lost his good judgment and decided to channel the genuine sense of injustice that guides his actions into an all-out incitement of the public against some of the most important institutions of state. These are matters of life and death for the nation’s soul, on which the prime minister, in his pain, is wreaking havoc.

If the prime minister himself attacks a state organ when he is personally involved, why shouldn’t every citizen do the same? If the prime minister decides that he is not one of “us” –we who agree to play by the rules of the game — what value can the game have for everyone else?

Netanyahu argues against the process that has brought him to this point. He claims that the investigations were conducted unfairly, the leaks from the investigations are illegal, the enforcement of the law is selective against him, and more. None of these allegations should be swept under the rug. They must be scrutinized boldly and honestly. But — and this is the main point — he cannot expect justice to be achieved in the streets. Inciting people to pour out into the streets is targeted at deterring the legitimate institutions from doing their job. There is no chance that the ploy will succeed; but if it did, it would sound the death knell for our society. Despite our many difference, the glue that holds our country together is our ability to abide by democratic principles and act as one, through the authorized institutions and according to the democratic rules of the game.

Netanyahu’s speech last Thursday could be seen as kicking over the very full bucket of his many stellar achievements during his long career of public service. He must realize — and announce to the public — that he will find the justice he is entitled to through a  professional process in  the courtroom, and not by means of arousing subversive unrest in the streets.

About the Author
Yedidia Stern is vice president for research at the Israel Democracy Institute and a professor of law at Bar-Ilan University.
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