An American audience might find it easier to follow the latest brouhaha surrounding Benjamin Netanyahu and his legal problems if it thinks of Netanyahu as Donald Trump, of outgoing police chief Roni Alsheich as a more flamboyant and erratic Robert Mueller, and of Netanyahu’s Likud colleagues as the Israeli version of kowtowing GOP stalwarts, who fear their party leader more than their consciences.
Everything will seem familiar now: The police have just recommended that Netanyahu be charged with bribery in the so-called Bezeq affair, just as they did in two previous reports on the prime minister’s alleged corruption. Rather than respond to the suspicions or explain the circumstances surrounding the details that have already been made public, Netanyahu preferred to cast himself as an innocent victim being framed by a corrupt police force. His toadies, including government ministers and members of the Knesset, eagerly disseminated his corrosive message far and wide.
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At a rally held on Sunday night to light the first candle of Hanukkah, Netanyahu let loose on his investigators. The police recommendations in the Bezeq affair, Netanyahu asserted, “were determined and leaked to the media even before the investigations started.” Police were conducting a “manhunt” against him. In other words, the charges against him are, excuse the expression, totally trumped up. The prime minister is being framed.
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“Nothing will come out of it because there’s nothing to it,” Netanyahu repeated his favorite retort to the allegations against him. If there’s really nothing to it, as he asserts, then the police spent millions of government shekels, interrogated scores of witnesses and wasted thousands of investigator hours in order to turn Netanyahu’s nothing-burger into a thick and well documented criminal file. If this were true, it would constitute a putsch that, in any normal country, would require that the police command be disbanded forthwith and its commanders put on trial.
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It’s hard to tell whether Netanyahu believes his own malarkey. On the one hand, someone who thinks that he’s up against nothing doesn’t go out and hire top-flight criminal lawyers, as Netanyahu did last week. On the other hand, after decades of casting himself as the victim, Netanyahu may have forgotten that it was just an act. Like his friend Trump, Netanyahu may also believe in a worldwide conspiracy out to get him, no matter what it takes.
If you change the name and the scenery, Netanyahu’s Hanukkah rally was classic Trump-style rabble rousing, streamed directly on live TV, over the heads of the hostile media. He portrayed himself as a martyr, savaged by the left for his “Israel-First” positions, subject to defamation and false accusations by their agents on the ground, in media and law enforcement. The base and its gullibility are the cornerstones of both Trump’s and Netanyahu’s political modus operandi.
Netanyahu must think it’s reasonable for a sitting prime minister to attack the police and to undermine public trust in its integrity for his own personal, political and legal purposes. Either he is a master con man who will stop at nothing, or he suffers from megalomaniac narcissism that leads him to believe that he and the state are one and the same, his welfare and Israel’s wellbeing are intertwined and his rule is so vital that it justifies any dastardly deed needed to preserve it.
Netanyahu exploited the misguided timing of the publication of the police report – on the last day of Alsheich’s tenure – to imply that it proved Alsheich’s malevolence or in some way negated the findings of the police report. The timing, however, was significant in another sense: It caused the publication of the police findings against Netanyahu to overlap with the separate controversy that erupted after a committee headed by former Supreme Court Justice Eliezer Goldberg nixed Police Minister Gilad Erdan’s candidate to replace Alsheich, Chico Edri. Rather than accepting the findings of the vetting committee, which was set up by the government itself, Erdan announced that he would ignore Goldberg and urge the government to approve Edri’s appointment nonetheless. Erdan’s bruised ego took precedence over good governance, never mind the blow to the prestige and credibility of a police force headed by an officer tainted by the government’s own committee.
But while Netanyahu and Erdan’s battles are designed for their personal needs – Netanyahu is fighting for survival and Erdan for his image – Habayit Hayehudi leader Naftali Bennett is talking revolution. Bennett and his sidekick, Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked, were the first to back Erdan and call on the government to simply ignore Goldberg and do away with vetting committees altogether. Two weeks ago, Bennett savaged the army’s advocate general for much the same reasons.
Bennett and Shaked want to remove legal and ethical shackles that still confine the government’s freedom of action. They want to take the good out of good governance. They seek to get rid of all the checks and balances that might thwart their plan to change Israel’s religious democracy into a settler-dominated theocracy that does what it pleases, ignoring such antiquated values as separation of powers, checks and balances, the rule of law and human rights. Netanyahu and Erdan – along with wannabe cultural commissar Miri Regev – provide the fuel with which Bennett and Shaked hope to burn the house down and build a more Jewish and less democratic structure instead.
As things stand, this will be the central and fateful question facing Israelis in the upcoming elections. Netanyahu’s personal fortunes will be intertwined with the religious-nationalist campaign to get rid of all the institutions and functionaries that prevent it from governing as it sees fit. Their enemies list reads like a blueprint of Israeli democracy, as it once was: Not only the Supreme Court, which Shaked is “fixing,” or the Justice Ministry, over which she rules, or the legal advisers of government ministries, who will soon be appointed directly by their political masters, or the police, which Netanyahu is now targeting. Bennett and Shaked ultimately hope to suborn the presidency, the army and even the Shin Bet to their purposes, when the time is right.
So that the next elections will be about more than Likud or Labor, Netanyahu or someone else, left or right, peace or war, etc. It will be a ballot that will determine the essence of Israel in the future. Its results will determine whether the right-wing bulldozer will finally crush what is left of Israel’s once proud democracy and build in its stead a system with a constitution that includes one solitary clause: To do as it’s told.