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To Escape Indictment, Netanyahu and His Accomplices Assault the Law

Chemi Shalev
Chemi Shalev
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Prime Minister Netanyahu with coalition head David Bitan in the Knesset, Oct 24, 2017.
Prime Minister Netanyahu with coalition head David Bitan in the Knesset, Oct 24, 2017.Credit: Olivier Fitoussi
Chemi Shalev
Chemi Shalev

Section 244 of Israel’s Penal Law defines obstruction of justice thus: “If a person does anything with the intention to prevent or foil a judicial proceeding or to cause a miscarriage of justice, whether by frustrating the summons of a witness, by concealing evidence or in some other manner, then he is liable to three years imprisonment; for this purpose, 'judicial proceeding' includes a criminal investigation and the implementation of a direction by a court.” According to this definition, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and senior figures in his coalition and the Likud are definitely obstructing justice. They are vigorously trying to “prevent or foil” the ongoing criminal investigations against Netanyahu and they are doing so with all the means at their disposal, including undermining witnesses and investigators, inciting against the legal system and changing the laws of the Knesset.

These rescue efforts may not be criminal in the legal sense, but they are certainly an offense against the rule of law. The prime minister is utilizing public platforms available to him by virtue of his elected position to diminish allegations against him and to cast doubt on the integrity of his investigators. His yes-men and yes-women in the Likud and the coalition are concurrently using the Knesset and their authority to legislate to achieve the same result. Adding injury to injury, Don Bibi’s Goodfellas are not shying away even from extortion: If we don’t get what we want, they threaten, we will dismantle the coalition and head for early elections.

Their strategy is shrouded in deception and hypocrisy.  Netanyahu is exploiting his bully pulpit and his position as head of the Likud party to shoot down a police inquiry in which he is a potential suspect, but casts himself nonetheless as an innocent victim who is being denied the basic rights given to regular criminal suspects. In a tardy and disingenuous statement at Sunday’s cabinet meeting, a faux-heroic Netanyahu declared that he isn’t interested in any law that deals with him personally, even though it’s clear to him and everyone else that while they may not apply to him formally, the proposed  “French Law”, which would give prime ministers immunity from investigation, and a separate law that would prohibit the police from publishing its recommendations at the end of investigations, are all aimed at getting Netanyahu, and only Netanyahu, off the hook.

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A law that prohibits criminal investigations of future prime ministers could cast Netanyahu as a casualty of timing and conjecture who is being singled out for punishment. The law that prohibits the police from publishing its conclusions would remove a dark cloud that might hover over Netanyahu, if his investigators conclude they have enough evidence for a conviction. This would give him many more precious months to try and influence or subvert the attorney general’s decision to indict and prosecute him.

The proponents of prime ministerial immunity cite the French precedent, which gives the country’s president immunity from investigation while he is in office, but a more relevant role model for Netanyahu’s stalwarts would be Italian. During his long years in office, Silvio Berlusconi and his party legislated close to 20 laws that were meant to give him immunity and to extricate him from myriad criminal probes and indictments. Time after time, when the Italian Supreme Court nullified such laws, Berlusconi’s loyal legions savaged the country’s judges, labeled them leftists and traitors and proposed laws aimed at curtailing the court’s authority and increasing the executive’s influence on judicial appointments, all of which should sound very familiar to Israeli legislators. The infamous bunga-bunga, it seems, is operational not only in sex parties but in corrupt parliaments as well.

There are only a handful of countries that consider themselves democratic in which such a brazen onslaught on the police and legal system by a leader who is a potential suspect in a criminal probe would even be conceivable. The United States, unfortunately, is one of them, even though Congress, certainly in its present mood, would not collaborate with legislation whose sole role was to get a suspected president off the legal hook. Just as Donald Trump exploits the ignorance and resentment of his followers to incite against his investigators and to sully their motives, so Netanyahu is nurturing the right’s inherent leader-worship and its hatred of so-called leftist elites in order to undermine the case against him. Netanyahu’s speeches along with the spins and manipulations of his confidantes and the laws they are proposing are all meant to signal to the public that Netanyahu is falling prey to one of the biggest blood libels in history. According to this concoction, the Israeli media is not only conspiring against Netanyahu, it is dictating moves to the police and the justice system. Which means that Israel does not really have a reliable police, dispassionate prosecutors or an unbiased judicial system, as you may have presumed, but a frail legal system that succumbs to the media, at best, or is part and parcel of an odious conspiracy to depose the Israeli prime minister, at worst. Netanyahu may or may not escape the criminal probes against him, but the damage he is doing to Israeli democracy and to the public’s trust in its institutions may be deep and possibly irreversible.

Perhaps the efforts to change the law will be suspended for now, but not for long. The tighter the noose around Netanyahu’s neck, the more daring and reckless his rescue efforts become. When public opinion is apathetic, the Knesset is a rubber stamp and the prime minister views himself as an agent of history whose rivals are trying to bring him down with false accusations of what he views as trivial misdemeanors, the inconceivable becomes possible.  “How the faithful city has become a harlot!” Isaiah lamented, but “Zion will be redeemed by justice” he consoled. Unless, of course, Netanyahu and his parliamentary guns-for-hire get there first.

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