Analysis

Netanyahu Reacts to Criminal Indictment With Seditious Call to Arms

Like the witnesses in Trump’s impeachment, the attorney general’s professionalism and gravitas lend credence to the charges against the prime minister

Supporters of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gathering outside his residence in Jerusalem, November 21, 2019.
Ariel Schalit,AP

Benjamin Netanyahu had one more chance on Thursday night to prove that he loves his country more than himself. Responding to the attorney general’s announcement that he was pressing criminal charges against the prime minister, Netanyahu could have acted as a true patriot rather than a self-absorbed tyrant, like a devoted democrat rather than a common criminal, like a leader who is bound to his sworn duty to protect Israel, its laws and its citizens.

But if Netanyahu had chosen such a path, he wouldn’t be the Netanyahu who throughout the past year has subjugated the state’s interests to his own. Even if he genuinely feels wrongly accused and the victim of “gross injustice,” as he said in a carefully crafted broken voice, a prime minister who loves his country would respect the rule of law, bow his head to its institutions and decisions, and pledge to prove his innocence in a court of law, like any citizen.

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Instead, Netanyahu launched a full-scale and frenzied attack on the legal system, accusing it of inherent corruption and of plotting against him. Essentially, he declared mutiny against the state he leads. Theoretically, he could even be accused of criminal sedition — defined, among other things, as “stirring hate, derision or disloyalty to the state or its governing and legal institutions.” That is what Netanyahu is doing when he accuses Israel’s legal authorities of trying to frame and depose him with fabricated facts, invented crimes and trumped-up charges.

It is hard to overstate the drama or severity of the constitutional and political crisis that grips Israel following Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit’s decision to indict, and Netanyahu’s refusal to play by accepted rules. In the midst of an unprecedented stalemate that has effectively left the country without a functioning government, the prime minister has been accused of serious crimes. Even for a country accustomed to chronic instability and volatility, this feels like an earthquake — in the twilight zone.

Objectively, there was nothing new in the indictment or in its public presentation on Thursday night by Mendelblit. Most of the details have been published, as were the expected charges: Fraud and breach of trust in two cases, the more severe bribery in the third. Nonetheless, Mendelblit’s somber appearance and uncharacteristically harsh words, after years of reticence, added gravitas to his announcement and made it seem more momentous.

History can be praised for its brilliant casting for choosing Mendelblit to be the attorney general who tells Israelis their prime minister is a crook. One can hail Mendelblit’s slow and methodical approach or blast his slow pace and reticence, but one thing’s for sure: He has the best possible public profile for an attorney general who is charging Netanyahu with serious crimes.

Mendelblit’s family’s Revisionist background and his own religious Zionist roots, devout appearance, army service as Military Advocate General and many years as Netanyahu’s close adviser added crucial credibility to his pronouncement.

Mendelblit, in fact, had something in common with the battery of government witnesses who have testified in recent days in the impeachment proceedings against President Donald Trump. Mendelblit personally — and Adam Schiff’s witnesses collectively — broke through the fog of conspiracy theories, fake news and partisan distortion to present a clear, unvarnished and damning picture of their leaders’ misdeeds and corruption.

Netanyahu, unfortunately, was also reacting in ways that immediately brought Trump to mind. The president’s influence seems to be growing: Netanyahu’s self-victimization is more ludicrous than ever, as is his Trump-style mix of crackpot conspiracy theories; invented, inflated or distorted facts; rumors turned incontrovertible evidence; tall tales aimed at diverting attentions; concocted smears about his accusers and their witnesses, and the like.

More disconcerting is the suspicion that what started out as Netanyahu’s calculated and cynical ploy aimed at rebuffing allegations about his wrongdoing has turned into his genuinely held beliefs.

Mendelblit’s credibility might prove crucial in convincing the public about the severity of the charges against the prime minister — and in dousing the fire that he intends to light among his supporters. His efforts to avert indictment could turn out to be child’s play in comparison to the mayhem Netanyahu might spark in order to stay in office.

After his disturbing appearance on Thursday night, it is clear that the country’s first priority is to distance Netanyahu from the Prime Minister’s Office in order to avoid the harm that he can and might impose. Even before the High Court of Justice is asked to rule whether an indicted prime minister can remain in office, 119 Knesset members could solve the problem in minutes.

The rare 21-day window in which they can anoint a prime minister all by themselves pits the parliamentarians in a test similar to Netanyahu, between political expediency and love of country. All one can do is pray is that they do not follow Netanyahu in his efforts to torch the house and bring it down on all Israelis rather than face the music for what Mendelblit convincingly portrays as high crimes.