Dominating coverage and discussion of the run-up to Israeli elections on April 9 is the likelihood that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will be indicted imminently on up to four corruption matters.
Even for the notoriously raucous mosh pit of Israeli politics, this is extreme and unprecedented.
In recent weeks, with what seems to be increasing panic, Netanyahu has attacked the integrity of police investigators and the Attorney General’s office, not to mention the media and his political adversaries, all of whom he accuses of conspiring to destroy him politically and personally.
“For years now,” Netanyahu lashed out a week ago, “left-wing protesters and the media have leveled thuggish, inhumane pressure at the attorney general to get him to file an indictment against me at any cost–even when there’s nothing there.”
This pressure is now reaching a climax,” he continued. “They’re trying to force the attorney general to brazenly intervene in the elections by ordering me to a hearing, despite knowing that it won’t be possible to conclude the hearing process by election day. It’s unconscionable to start a hearing process before elections that can’t be concluded by the elections.”
Customarily, the urbane, articulate, calm, analytical persona Netanyahu has been flailing of late. In addition to attacking law enforcement and others, he issued a bizarre video last Saturday in a misguided attempt to generate public sympathy. In it, Netanyahu compares his ultimate vindication to someone who may have their arm amputated as a punishment for stealing. On appeal, the convicted thief may be acquitted, but the damage is irreversible. “Can someone give him back his arm? Can someone give you back the elections?” asked the prime minister.
And then, last Monday, he had his office alert the nation about his “dramatic” statement to be made that night at 8 pm; the hour, coincidentally, when virtually every Israeli household tunes in for the evening news broadcast.
Speculation was rampant: Is Bibi resigning? Has he made a “deal” with Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit?
Turns out, the prime minister quite inappropriately used his access to the national airwaves to hammer home his innocence and persecution, imploring Israelis to support and protect him from this prosecutorial frenzy targeting him.
Among other sharp comments, the prime minister harangued the police and justice system for overseeing an abuse of process motivated by the basest politics. To allow such conduct not only damages him personally, he alleges, but threatens the democratic fiber of Israel by interfering with the free and fair election process. To indict now is so egregious as to undermine the integrity of core state values and institutions.
His point is clear and correct, but perhaps the trickier part is how the various core state institutions have managed to muddle through things so incompetently to arrive at this juncture, where every option is horrible.
For close to three years, the Israeli police have been investigating Netanyahu’s conduct and that of numerous associates and aides. Their evidence and recommendations to indict were provided to the attorney general several months ago. He knew they were coming and had more than ample notice to clear the decks so that he and his senior staff could handle the matter expeditiously. After all, there is no more important case on his docket, one would imagine, than multiple allegations of corruption leveled against a sitting prime minister.
Yet Mandelblit seems to be more indecisive than Hamlet, pondering interminably, “to indict or not to indict?” This should have been dealt with, decisively, months ago.
Now, he’s got a real mess on his hands. While Mandelblit mulled, Netanyahu called an early election. In doing so, the prime minister avoided a showdown with the ultra-orthodox bloc in the Knesset over the draft law requiring the religious to serve in the army. He also put Mandelblit in an impossible situation.
Netanyahu is absolutely correct on one point. To indict him during an election campaign period, as Mandelblit is likely to do in February, will absolutely interfere with the free and fair electoral process.
If, however, he were to wait until the day after the vote, the integrity of the electoral process would not be compromised. There is a strong view that the people must know before they vote whether the PM will be indicted. Ideally, yes. But these circumstances are anything but.
Netanyahu is talking about introducing a law as soon as he forms a new government that would prevent the indictment and prosecution of a sitting prime minister.
Negotiating a coalition can take up to two months in Israel, leaving Mandelblit plenty of time to either indict or not in the immediate post-election period.
There has been a robust discussion in the media about the fact that Mandelblit has been conferring with former judges and senior justice officials as to the legality of indicting Netanyahu in the midst of the election campaign. Apparently, the consensus is that such action is legal and permissible.
Perhaps. But the question really should not only be whether it is technically legal but whether it is ethical as well. Sometimes, as the cliché so aptly describes, “the law is an ass.” And this may well be one of those moments.