Israel got the worst of both worlds on Tuesday night. On the one hand, the police report on the Benjamin Netanyahu investigations was graver than anticipated, sparking an immediate media and political storm. Netanyahu’s investigators claim to have collected enough evidence to indict the prime minister on two counts of bribery – the worst of public service crimes – as well as fraud and breach of trust. On the other hand, however, the police did not produce the kind of smoking gun that would have shocked public opinion and fundamentally upset the political status quo.
The inevitable result is that the current destructive impasse will only get worse. Netanyahu will escalate his war of attrition against the rule of law in general, and his police investigators in particular, with totally predictable consequences: Public trust in law enforcement will continue to erode, political polarization will deepen and Israel will continue to serve as a boxing ring in which the prime minister tries to beat his way to exoneration.
Netanyahu’s response to the investigations and the police report is no less reprehensible than their findings. He reacted to the publication of the report with a televised call for public support, in which he sounded as if he honestly believes, like Louis XIV, that he and the nation are one and the same. If so, he may reason that any challenge to him is tantamount to an attack on the state – which is how Netanyahu may be rationalizing his unprecedented onslaught on the police and their integrity.
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If he would love his country a little bit more and himself a little bit less, Netanyahu would refrain from undermining public trust in such an essential pillar of the law as the police. When Netanyahu asks Israelis to imagine they are being investigated by police officers who are waging a personal vendetta against him, he is echoing every two-bit crook who proclaims his innocence and accuses the police of framing him. Even if he is innocent, this is conduct unbecoming a leader who depicts himself as the ultimate patriot.
The conduct revealed by the police refutes Netanyahu’s innocence anyway – in a public, if not legal, sense. The police report reveals systematic give-and-take relations between Netanyahu and the high-and-mighty. Its cast includes not only the prime minister, but also a famous Hollywood producer like Arnon Milchan, Australian casino billionaire James Packer, and the publisher of what is arguably still Israel’s most influential newspaper, Arnon Mozes – hitherto one of the most feared figures in the country. The revelation that former finance minister and current rival Yair Lapid is one of the prosecution’s main witnesses only adds to the “House of Cards” atmosphere.
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The police report raises suspicions that Netanyahu traded in state property and communication licenses in exchange for personal favor and perks, and that he tried to “fix” the newspaper market against the better interests of his own benefactor, Israel Hayom publisher Sheldon Adelson, in exchange for positive coverage.
In many countries, Netanyahu would have already been sent packing for clear ethical violations. But in others – such as Silvio Berlusconi’s Italy or Donald Trump’s America – state affairs and personal benefits are more closely intertwined. Their fans forgive their leaders’ transgressions. They should also partake, they reason.
Nonetheless, Netanyahu’s agreement to pass a tax bill that would benefit Milchan, or his reported suggestion to limit Israel Hayom’s circulation, don’t provide the kind of stomach-turning catharsis that could fundamentally change the situation – as Morris Talansky’s money-stuffed envelopes did in the case of his predecessor, Ehud Olmert.
Netanyahu’s supporters won’t turn on him, and his party colleagues won’t find the courage to demand his resignation. He’ll be able to continue portraying himself as the heroic victim of a sinister conspiracy. His aiders and abettors in Likud will continue to spin wild tales of coup d’états and putsches. His base will grow even angrier at the alleged plot hatched by the media, the left and the police – George Soros is waiting in the wings, of course – which will spur Likud politicians to go even harsher and more delusional. Instead of dealing with the obvious crisis that now exists in its top echelons in a calm and calculated manner, Israel will descend into political mayhem and bedlam. The law does not require Netanyahu’s resignation, the details released by the police won’t force him to do so and the politicians won’t depose him just because of the havoc he is about to unleash.
Which brings us to the person who has the final say on whether to indict Netanyahu – Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit, who seems a priori like the wrong guy in the wrong place at the wrong time. In order to minimize the fallout and to bring the looming lunacy to a quick halt, Israel needs an attorney general who is brave, decisive and knows how to reach conclusions fairly but quickly. Mendelblit has until now conducted himself like the opposite of all these, but maybe he’ll surprise us.