Catriel Lev
Catriel Lev

The 21st Knesset Elections and Netanyahu’s Crisis

My Facebook Post from Sunday, 3 March, 2019, and the ensuing discussion it caused with my friend Jason Elbaum, caused me to hone my thoughts about Binyamin Netanyahu’s crisis, as a Prime Minister of Israel who is likely to have a few indictments brought against him in the coming year, and as a candidate to be Prime Minister again after the upcoming elections for the 21st Knesset, which will be held on Tuesday, 9 April, 2019.

As a result, I have composed this essay on what seems to me to be the most reasonable approach toward what we know about Netanyahu’s legal troubles, and toward his behavior in general.

First of all, I wish to bring to everyone’s attention that most (if not all) of the articles on the internet about the Netanyahu Crisis, have related to only some of the aspects of this subject, while I hope here to present my analysis of every issue that has some relevance to this subject.

I wish to begin with Netanyahu’s performance as Prime Minister: I am basically pleased with it. I suspect that a few (not many) politicians (such as the late Moshe Arens) might have done better, and there are statements and policies of Netanyahu’s with which I disagree, but, overall, he has handled the difficult job of balancing a coalition and running a government in a manner that I think deserves praise.

That said, no one is irreplaceable! “The cemeteries of France are full of people the world could not survive without”, as was once stated by someone I knew decades ago (and is often attributed to Charles De Gaulle).

If someone has committed a criminal offense, or has behaved in such an immoral or unethical manner as to be unfit for office, s/he must go – no matter how much I may like the way they performed their job! So the criminal, moral, and ethical aspects of this subject must also be examined – as I hope to do a bit further on.

Then there are the issues about how Netanyahu’s personality has affected his performance. The late Moshe Arens, one of Netanyahu’s mentors, was my paradigm for excellence in an Israeli politician. Arens navigated the intricacies of coalition politics, international relations, and internal Israeli affairs with superb skill, while being completely committed to the civil rights of the individual, and being a modest and unpretentious person with all that!

Netanyahu appears to have many of Arens’ skills, but seems to be sorely lacking in the area of being a modest and unpretentious person, and his commitment to the civil rights of the individual seems to waver when that might interfere with his own political power. Additionally, unlike Arens’ mentoring of him, Netanyahu never seems to groom people to succeed him, and appears to have done his best to stifle the chances of anyone who might rival his popularity.

These types of personality traits do not tend to promote the building of a strong cadre of qualified people in one’s own party, and tend to push the person exhibiting them toward an almost paranoid fear of anyone who isn’t a “yes man”.

These issues about Netanyahu’s personality are not criminal, and may not even be immoral or unethical, but they make him less of an ideal leader than he could be, given his excellent skills in other areas.

Another issue that is present, though obscured by larger questions, is that of the length of term in office. Netanyahu has served as Prime Minister for more than thirteen years (a large part of that consecutively), in our country which has no limits on the amount of time a person can serve as Prime Minister.

Of all Israel’s Prime Ministers, only Menachem Begin supposedly resigned of his own free will (and that is debated by historians – though there are reports which note that he submitted his resignation soon after he reached the age of 70, which, apparently several years before, he had noted as an appropriate age to retire from being a Prime Minister [and I remember Begin being quoted as saying something to that effect]).

All other Prime Ministers to date have either been forced out of office (although Ben-Gurion and Meir resigned, most historical portrayals that I have seen portray them as having been forced out of office without elections), or died in office.
Israel has had no leader who, like George Washington in the USA, set a limit on how long he would serve and then retired (with the possible exception of Menachem Begin).

I believe that this is a mistake (as my friend Miriam Friedman Zussman has noted on Facebook, “One of the major problems of having no term limits is that leaders don’t cultivate successors and sometimes actively fight anyone that can potentially lead, so no one in their party can challenge them.” – deficiencies that Netanyahu seems to suffer from, as I noted above). Though this issue is not directly related to Netanyahu’s legal troubles, it may have contributed to them indirectly.

A Prime Minister who serves for a long period of time may begin to feel himself somewhat “above the law,” and feel that, “since the country needs him so much,” he can bend the laws and norms of public service.
I suggest that there be legal limits set on how long a person can serve as Prime Minister – something like, “Ten years or two terms (which, in certain cases, can be as long as ten years or even a little longer), whichever is longer,” seems appropriate to me.

Now, to the legal cases against Netanyahu themselves:

Traditionally, bribery has been defined, conceptually, as giving something of value to someone in return for receiving illicit favors from that person (especially if that person has the ability to influence governmental/judicial decisions). [Since the law in Israel also takes “משפט עברי” (Jewish Law- Halacha) into account, I will also bring examples from Jewish Law.]

Therefore, bribery includes all things of value, even if it is non-monetary value, as has been specified in Jewish law [הרמב”ם (הל’ סנהדרין פרק כג, הלכה ג), ובעקבותיו ה’שולחן ערוך’ (חו”מ סימן ט), פסק: “ולא שוחד ממון בלבד אלא אפילו שוחד דברים”.]. This is what Netanyahu is charged with in Case 4000 (officially named in Hebrew “מעבר לאופק”, and also called The Bezeq-Walla-Elovitch Case).

Of course, there is the claim that the change from the negative news coverage to positive news coverage (by the Walla news site owned by Bezeq, in which Shaul Elovitch holds the controlling share) that Netanyahu allegedly demanded in return for approval of a merger which would monetarily benefit Elovitch, cannot be bribery because “there is no clear monetary value to positive news coverage”!

However, such a claim appears totally baseless to me. First of all, there is value other than monetary value (as Jewish Law, states, as I noted above). Additionally, as my friend Eliyahu Shiffman has noted on Facebook, “How much would a political party be willing to pay a PR firm that credibly promised that party more positive news coverage? Of course it has monetary value!”

There is also the question posited by many Netanyahu supporters that “”Plenty of communications ministers have issued decisions that favor Bezeq. Were they all guilty of bribery?” However, this sounds to me like a totally invalid comparison made as an apologetic, in order to create an artificial justification for Netanyahu’s alleged actions.

It seems to me the equivalent of justifying a bank robber by saying, “Plenty of people have walked down Main Street and given money to a beggar there, as the bank robber did on his way to rob the bank – were they all guilty of robbing a bank?”! The part of Netanyahu’s alleged behavior that is a crime is the demanding quid quo pro for approving the merger that favored Bezeq – not the benefit which accrued afterwards to Bezeq!

Then there is the claim by Netanyahu diehards that the merger that benefited Bezeq would have gone through anyway, without any intervention by Netanyahu! However, this again is a shift of focus made as an apologetic, in order to create an artificial justification for Netanyahu’s alleged actions.
What was wrong about Netanyahu’s alleged behavior was the demand of quid quo pro for a decision – not the decision itself! As Jewish law states: רמב”ם, הלכות סנהדרין, פרק כג, הלכה א: אלא אפילו לזכות את הזכאי ולחייב את החייב, אסור, ועובר בלא תעשה – making it clear that accepting a bribe to make the correct decision is also a crime.

There is also the claim that (even if the alleged actions are actually the ones Netanyahu took) finding Netanyahu guilty of bribery in Case 4000, or breach of trust in Case 2000, also called the Netanyahu-Mozes Case (where Netanyahu is alleged to have offered Arnon Mozes, the owner of a newspaper that was critical of Netanyahu, promotion of legislation which would limit the competition to Mozes’ newspaper, if Mozes would reduce the criticism and be more praising of Netanyahu’s policies) would make “political dealing bribery by definition, since any politician would be willing to pay for political support for their priorities”!

However, this has an easy refutation also, as my friend Eliyahu Shiffman has noted on Facebook, “When a politician offers to pass legislation, not for the public’s benefit, but to benefit a media mogul in exchange for better coverage of the politician, that’s bribery. When a politician agrees to pay money to a PR company to influence/convince key media people via legitimate means, that is purchasing services. To me, the distinction is obvious.”!

Therefore, I do not see any legal weaknesses in the cases against Netanyahu, if the alleged actions are actually the ones Netanyahu took. This also indicates that accusations by Netanyahu and his supporters that these cases were inflated into something criminal because all sorts of officials in the Police Department and the Justice Department (up to and including the Attorney General himself) were leftists out to illegitimately weaken Netanyahu’s right-wing government, or weak people cowed by the leftists, appear to be totally baseless!

There have also been various claims by Netanyahu diehards that leftists have been pressuring the Attorney General (as noted above) to ensure that he indicts Netanyahu.

This disingenuousness, as if only leftists have been pressuring the Attorney General, is actually unworthy of any response, since rightists have also been pressuring the Attorney General very strongly (to ensure that he does not indict Netanyahu), and even middle-of-the-roaders, like myself, have been pressuring the Attorney General with our requests that he ignore the pressure from the left and from the right, and just do his job properly and announce whatever conclusions he reaches whenever he reaches them!
As my friend Daniel Goldman responded on Facebook to someone’s query as to who, from which side of the political spectrum, has been pressuring the Attorney General, “Who isn’t pressuring the Attorney General?!

Next, we come to the strategy of accusing almost the entire justice system of tremendous bias and illegitimate attempts to undermine Netanyahu’s lawfully elected right-wing government. This certainly sounds like the frantic effort of a person who will use any means possible to hold on to power, including undermining the very governmental system of which he is a part!

That, of course, is a very dangerous course of action, which also brings into question Netanyahu’s judgement and his fitness for high governmental office.

After that, are the questions about the moral and ethical implications of Netanyahu’s alleged actions in the situations described in Case 1000 (also called The Gifts Affair), Case 2000, and Case 4000. None of those implications reflect favorably upon Netanyahu, though the public has to decide for themselves how poorly they reflect upon Netanyahu and whether that is significant enough to affect whether they will vote for him and his party!

The result of the analysis of the issues, as far as I can see, is to make Netanyahu clearly unfit for office if his alleged actions are actually the ones he performed (which can only be determined finally at the trials of these cases), and certainly of questionable character based upon the way in which he “defends himself” in the public arena from the charges which are to be brought against him (pending a hearing with the Attorney General), and perhaps unfit for office ethically and/or morally by the excesses he appears to have been guilty of.

As to what Netanyahu should do now, and whether we should vote for him and his party, I leave that open to suggestion by others.

Here is an essay by David Horowitz, founding editor of the Times of Israel, on Netanyahu’s behavior as an indictment against him has moved nearer, and what this behavior indicates.

And here is an interesting suggestion from notable right-winger Ben-Dror Yemini (in Hebrew) as to what Netanyahu Netanyahu (can do without actually admitting to wrongdoing and) should do.

About the Author
Catriel Lev, an "unconformist" halachic Jew/poet/philosopher defying standard categorization, born in Baltimore. MD (USA), living in Bet Shemesh, Israel, tries to view the issues without any “normative” biases (of any particular political/philosophical faction). His views are his own, and do not obligate anyone else, and may often be found on his personal blog.