Benjamin Netanyahu’s formal request for immunity is a headfirst dive into deep state paranoia. Netanyahu’s application, signed by his lawyers, accuses the Israeli justice system, headed by Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit, his former aide and current appointee, of trying to frame him. It alleges a deep political bent in Israel’s public prosecution. It accuses legal authorities, essentially, of carrying out an attempted putsch.
Netanyahu’s petition is a Trumpian insurrection against established norms as well as a battle cry for a vox populi to rescue him from the guardians of the rule of law. It is a daunting demand, with potentially far-reaching ramifications.
After months of avoiding and denying, Netanyahu is deeming himself unequal before the law in order to place himself above it. The chances of the Knesset granting his request are virtually nil, after Avigdor Lieberman signaled his total opposition, but whether it is denied forthwith, as the opposition demands, or postponed until a new Knesset is constituted, as he seeks, Netanyahu has placed his legal proceedings at the heart of the upcoming election campaign.
Netanyahu’s request, along with his Wednesday night speech heralding its presentation, enraged his critics and embarrassed many of his party colleagues. It marked an abrupt about-face from Netanyahu’s previous assertions that the facts will speak for themselves, the charges against him will amount to nothing and, therefore, he has no intention of seeking immunity. The inclusion of Netanyahu’s crackpot conspiracy theories in a formal legal document was even more jarring: Whether a product of deceit or delusion, it injected an element of derangement into the hitherto rational arena of the law.
Thursday’s High Court of Justice dismissal of petitions that sought to bar Netanyahu’s reelection because of his indictments ensures that his persona and potential prosecution will dominate the upcoming election campaign. If the past year’s two previous elections were deemed a personal referendum on Netanyahu, the third will feature an added complexity introduced by his indictments: It will pit Netanyahu and his immunity against his opposition and the rule of law.
In one of their more fanciful statements, which eerily echoed Trump’s claims to have won the popular vote in 2016 and to have been elected by the greatest Electoral College margin in history, Netanyahu’s lawyers asserted that in the previous two elections “Netanyahu received a tremendous mandate from the people.” His mandate, however, wasn’t “tremendous” enough to allow Netanyahu to form a government, and if the March 2 ballot delivers similar results, his fate will be placed in the hands of President Reuven Rivlin.
You can rest assured that the campaign to deter Rivlin from refusing to appoint Netanyahu to form a government by proving his long-held animus and leftist-inspired bias is already in the planning stages. It will mark the next to last stage of Netanyahu’s efforts to undermine his investigation and prosecution, which started with bent police investigators, continued to biased prosecutors, is now focused on a weak attorney general who rushed to judgment, will proceed to Rivlin, if the need arises, and will culminate in district court judges – who are obviously part of the plot, should they reject the prime minister’s claims of innocence.
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Netanyahu’s immunity request means that he is going for broke, taking no prisoners and sparing no norm or value in his efforts to avoid trial. If the need arises, and the possibility exists, as Yossi Verter wrote on Thursday, Netanyahu will drag Israel into a fourth or fifth straight election campaign, as long as he remains prime minister. At best, he will devise a ruse to get him off the hook; at worst, he will enter the courtroom as a sitting prime minister, with his ability to threaten and intimidate from his public pulpit still intact.
His immunity speech, however, reflected not only determination but desperation as well. Netanyahu’s decision to seek immunity not only violates his previous pledges, notwithstanding his ludicrously convoluted justifications, it also flies in the face of his claims of innocence. He decided on the move despite the knowledge that it could harm his prospects for reelection. Where his devout fans may view him as a lone ranger fighting off the forces of darkness, others might smell the fear of a cornered and wounded criminal, despairing for escape.
In fact, Netanyahu’s appearance on Wednesday was alarming and pitiful at the same time. The slim chance that Netanyahu will emerge triumphant from his endeavor certainly justifies concern for Israel’s future, but the greater prospect that Netanyahu will ultimately fail and end his career in shame is a tragedy of Greek proportions. The hubris that compelled him to accept precious gifts as his natural right and to manipulate Israel’s communications market in order to receive the positive press coverage he thinks he deserves also persuaded him he was perched high above the law. His downfall will be hard and painful.
Netanyahu envisages a victory on March 2 that reprises his 2009, 2013 and 2015 electoral victories and resuscitates his reputation as the grandmaster magician of Israeli politics. At worst, he will make do with indecisive outcomes, such as those he achieved in the April and September elections, which may not have allowed him to form his own government but prevented his rivals from doing so either. Continued paralysis and stalemate may inflict untold damage on the Israeli economy and erode public confidence in democracy, but they suit Netanyahu’s aims just fine.
The prime minister’s agitated demeanor, however, is increasingly reminiscent of the one election campaign Netanyahu would rather forget – his 1999 drubbing by Ehud Barak, which followed his first term in office. He entered the campaign immersed in scandal and corruption, having barely escaped prosecution in the so-called Baron-Hebron affair and after depicting then attorney general Elyakim Rubinstein’s scathing public report on his conduct as a “complete exoneration.” This may sound familiar.
In the three years after his sensational May 1996 victory over Shimon Peres, Netanyahu clashed with most senior Likud leaders, who abandoned him to fend for himself. He went to the second of Israel’s three personal elections as a solitary figure, reviled by foes and allies alike, much as he will on March 2. Then too, Netanyahu was challenged by a coterie of former senior army officers, from Ehud Barak, who led Labor to victory, to former Chief of Staff Amnon Shahak and retired army general Yitzhak Mordechai, whose Center party served as a way-station for wavering voters who ended up voting for Barak.
In the 1999 campaign, Netanyahu sought to divert public attention away from his personal behavior by stoking fears of a leftist government that would succumb to Palestinians. He savaged the press, accusing it of disseminating “fake news” before the term was even invented. He stoked inter-ethnic tensions, seizing on errant remarks to fan the flames of enmity and resentment between Ashkenazi and North African Jews and flailing against the “elites," who were bent on defeating the champion of Israel’s downtrodden. He is bound to repeat the same tactics in the weeks ahead.
In January 1999, if you will excuse me for citing myself, I wrote in Ma’ariv: “It’s true he has a hard nucleus of voters. It’s true that demographics work in his favor. It’s true that he’s down but not out and hasn’t even begun to fight, as John Paul Jones said. And it’s true that in Israel anything can happen, and usually does, but still, in a rational world, Netanyahu faces an uphill battle. He may be gearing for an election campaign but his rivals are embarking on a vendetta.”
“Netanyahu is fighting for his life. He is full of motivation. He hates losing and he knows that if he doesn’t win, history will be uncharitable. It is always uncharitable to a loser.”
The world has changed since 1999. Netanyahu has proven that he can survive the silent resentment of his Likud colleagues, as well as the negative press coverage, which in any case is far more positive today than he concedes or than it was then, and, so far, the unyielding machinery of the legal system is as well.
While his election campaign will feature all the fire and brimstone at his disposal, along with the division, incitement, exaggerations and distortions at which he excels, Netanyahu’s furtive glances during the presentation of his immunity request suggest that he is at the end of his wits. His arsenal of tricks and shticks is depleting, escape hatches are closing and convincing the public to stick with him is shaping up to be a Herculean challenge. On March 2, someone is going to party like it’s 1999. Netanyahu is starting to realize that it may not be him.