Immunity or Not, Netanyahu Is Running Out of Options

The prime minister's distorted lessons in democracy show how desperate he is ahead of a midweek deadline to seek a parliamentary shield against indictment

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Netanyahu at a Hanukkah candle-lighting ceremony in Tel Aviv, December 29.
Netanyahu at a Hanukkah candle-lighting ceremony in Tel Aviv, December 29.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum
Yossi Verter
Yossi Verter

“Treat your men as you would your own beloved sons. And they will follow you into the deepest valley,” wrote Sun Tzu in "The Art of War.”

Perhaps that’s what Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was thinking at the support rally held on Sunday which he had organized for himself and at which he delivered a distorted civics lesson to his fans about the meaning of parliamentary immunity. With the warrior from Balfour Street under pressure in the extreme, and distress, stemming from the tightening legal blockade around him, it’s no surprise.

After all his public and legal defenses have collapsed one by one, he has only one escape route left. By Wednesday at midnight he must send the outgoing Knesset speaker, Yuli Edelstein, a letter requesting parliamentary immunity against the charges pending against him. He has no choice. But let’s be precise; it’s not really an escape route, but a delay tactic, one that is also destined to fall apart during the Knesset's next term.

Thus, with his signature, he will have called his own bluff and all the various versions of “what? of course nots,” will show themselves to have been little more than one long, orchestrated campaign of lies and deception.

The latest example of the chaos reigning in the prime minister’s environs took place on Monday night. The press was invited to hear the accused declare his decision to ask for immunity, at 8 P.M. Shortly after that invite was issued, the event was cancelled. The move wasn't at all surprising. What was surprising was that an invite had been issued at all. 

Immunity is a radioactive topic. Most of the public is opposed, including a third of right-wing voters. It represents a privilege denied to the average citizen; it conveys a sense of guilt, fear and attempt to hide behind technicalities; it constitutes a slap in the face at the legislature that passed it into law for exactly the opposite purpose for which Netanyahu is seeking to exploit it.

The immunity option is intended as a tool to protect a parliamentarian who during the course of their work and the mission for which they're elected either errs, slips up, or has a brush with the law. It was also meant to protect a lawmaker from possible harassment by the executive branch. These are not the issues that Netanyahu faces; They are not the substance of Cases 1000, 2000 and 4000.

Requesting immunity is something to be ashamed of. It’s not a flag to be brandished in the city square; it’s a blemish which would normally lead a person to duck for cover in a dark alley, far from the public eye. It’s true that Netanyahu and his advisers are wont to routinely grab prime time coverage, but the original plan to announce the immunity request at the opening of the nightly news broadcasts demonstrates how distorted their sophisticated compass has become. If they were trying to influence Tuesday’s High Court of Justice hearing on whether Netanyahu can be eligible to form a government after the next election, that only makes the error that much worse.

This was not their only gaffe in recent days. In his speech on Sunday at the Hanukkah candle-lighting ceremony, the prime minister’s aides supplied him with a punch line that swiftly boomeranged. “I’ve never seen a cockpit with four pilots,” he said, referring to the leadership of Kahol Lavan. The remark was swiftly shared on social media as well. The Israel Pilots Association, however, hastened to correct the error and point out that there is indeed such a thing as a cockpit staffed by four pilots. 

Kahol Lavan chairman Benny Gantz bungled the great opportunity, though. “I’ve never seen a prime minister with three indictments,” he tweeted. There were also those who reminded Netanyahu that in terms of Knesset seats, the four-person cockpit had defeated him in the last election, was neck-and-neck with him in the one before that, and is now leading him in the polls in the run-up to the March election.

On Sunday, with members of Likud youth standing behind him and a hanukkiah in front of him, Netanyahu uttered another remark worthy of a listing in the ridiculous statements hall of fame: “Immunity is a cornerstone of democracy.” 

It's a statement that will be remembered derisively along with the sage remarks of David Amsalem, Miri Regev, Miki Zohar and Amir Ohana, the great Likud philosophers of modern times. Thus spoke the great democrat, who in recent years – on his own, and through his son, spokesmen and lackeys in the Knesset and the cabinet – has been throwing stones right between the eyes of Israeli democracy.

A few dozen supporters, who party veterans have identified as “the crazies from Goren Square,” responded with enthusiasm. “We want immunity! We want immunity!” they yelled, as if they were  shouting from the bleachers at a soccer game. On Monday, a few hundred demonstrators gathered at Habimah Square in Tel Aviv to threaten the High Court justices, lest they dare disqualify Netanyahu from being able to form a government.

The accused himself lent support to the demonstration in a video clip that also smacked of a threat. “I can’t even conceive that the Supreme Court of Israel would fall into this trap. In a democracy, the one who decides who rules is the people and only the people, not anyone else,” Netanyahu said.

If Supreme Court President Esther Hayut could tweet, she’d probably have responded, “And when I went to study law, I couldn’t have even conceived that a day would come when I would be hearing a case involving a prime minister under three indictments.”

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