Analysis

Four Lawmakers Stand Between Israel and a Banana Republic

Unless they betray their public mandate, Knesset members can foil a plan to make parliament an asylum for suspected criminals

File photo: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein shake hands during a Likud meeting at the Knesset, Jerusalem, April 30, 2019.
Olivier Fitoussi

Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and five other lawmakers must pass up voting – even if the Knesset protocol allows it – on a proposed bill to grant sitting Knesset members immunity from prosecution, since it would greatly benefit them.

Netanyahu, as well as Interior Minister Arye Dery, Deputy Health Minister Yaakov Litzman and Likud's Social Affairs Minister Haim Katz and MK David Bitan, are all the subjects of criminal investigations, with two of them facing indictments by the attorney general, pending a hearing.

An indictment against Dery is around the corner and the police have recommended indicting Bitan on charges of bribery. Litzman’s investigation is still in its early stages.

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Assuming these five absent themselves from the vote and the opposition stands together against this dishonorable bill, the survival of the rule of law in Israel depends on the basic integrity of three or four MKs belonging to the coalition, which is currently being formed.

If these lawmakers vote according to their conscience and not according to mafia-style codes of behavior dictated by Netanyahu and his shameful cheerleaders, such as Likud MK Miki Zohar, they could significantly impact the future of this state. It’s doubtful that they’ll ever again have the opportunity to take part in such a seminal moment in their entire political careers. They have the power to thwart the first stage in a plan, the entire purpose of which is to turn the legislature into an asylum for people accused of criminal activity.

On the eve of the April election, Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan said he would oppose granting immunity to Prime Minister Netanyahu. In 2003, when he was a rank and file Knesset member, Erdan took part in discussions held by the Knesset's Constitution, Law and Justice Committee, which was trying to formulate a consensual constitution. During sessions, a question arose regarding the need to enshrine in law a constitutional clause stipulating that no person convicted of a crime and sentenced to prison could be appointed to the cabinet before seven years had elapsed from the time the sentence was given.

Erdan supported this clause vigorously and his reasons then now sound like a chilling prophecy: “For precisely a case like this we need a constitution”, said Erdan. “And we know what kind of case we’re talking about, when the day comes and a person with great influence manages to convince Knesset members to change the law and adapt it to his needs. The constitution is meant to address precisely these circumstances…the rules need to be clear and firm and unchangeable.” Erdan couldn’t imagine that 16 years after uttering these words in a session not covered by the media, a prime minister would seek to escape legal action through repugnant legislation, with a clear-cut ambition of upending the nature of Israel’s regime.

Kahlon on mute

On the eve of the election, Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon met with TheMarker correspondents. When repeatedly asked if he would support legislation that would extricate Netanyahu from an indictment, Kahlon was clear and determined: “This will not happen. If an indictment is filed, Netanyahu will not be prime minister” he said with resolve. Now his voice is silent, but soon he will face the most critical test of his public life, much weightier than cellphone market reform.

Former Shin Bet chief and Likud MK Avi Dichter was one of the people who ushered out former prime minister and the head of his then Kadima party, Ehud Olmert. This happened at a much earlier stage on the path which Netanyahu is currently on. It happened after the early testimony given by businessman Moshe Talansky in the cash envelopes affair. When Olmert assailed then State Prosecutor Moshe Lador in 2008, Dichter went against him, claiming that the prime minister was “endangering the rule of law.”

File photo: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu alongside ministers Gilad Erdan, left, Moshe Kahlon and Yisrael Katz during the swearing in of the 21st Knesset, Jerusalem, May 2, 2019.
Emil Salman

In the 1980s, when he held a junior post in the Shin Bet security service, the young Dichter went against the mainstream current that backed malfeasance in the organization. Dichter supported three department heads who exposed the Bus 300 affair [in which Shin Bet members executed captured terrorists], publicizing the murders and the web of lies spun by the Shin Bet heads when facing state inquiry commissions.

In the ranks of the coalition there are several other people who ostensibly are natural candidates for blocking a move that threatens to bury the concept of equality before the law and turn Israel into a banana republic. These include Kulanu's Roy Folkman, who took part in a demonstration protesting changes to the law dealing with publicizing police recommendations at the end of an investigation. This law was initiated by Netanyahu's associates, working for his benefit. Likud MK Gideon Sa’ar and Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein stated clearly before the election that they would oppose legislation that would allow Netanyahu to evade prosecution, which Social Equality Minister Gila Gamliel and others might also do.

Likud has several new faces on its slate, some of them young ones as Michal Shir. Will they feel no shame in supporting such corrupting legislation that would stain their public record forever? Or will they have the basic courage to oppose this plot and tell Netanyahu: “If there was nothing and there is nothing, as you keep saying, face the court and prove your innocence like any other citizen.”

In “Midnight in Sicily”, Australian author Peter Robb wrote that beyond some point, power deletes guilt. Robb was researching the deadly takeover of Italy by the Christian-Democrats a few decades ago. That party was tightly associated with the Cosa Nostra. These words captured in a nutshell the total helplessness of Italy’s civil society and its law enforcers in serving justice and holding to account top-level politicians who had sinned without paying a price, thus turning the republic into one of the most corrupt and decadent places in Europe.

If all this does not happen and if members of the coalition do not meet the challenge, and if key coalition figures betray their mission and stand aside or collaborate, we will be close to a moment at which the clock will show that it’s midnight in Jerusalem.