In his visit to Brazil this week to participate in the inauguration of its new president, Benjamin Netanyahu made sure to note that Jair Bolsonaro shares his name with his own son, Yair. Appearing before an enthusiastic crowd of Brazilian evangelicals, Netanyahu explained that the name means “to give light” in Hebrew. “We now have an opportunity to bring much light to Israeli and Brazilian citizens,” Netanyahu said. “This is an alliance of brothers.”
For many around the world, however, Netanyahu’s long-lost brother is no bringer of light but a harbinger of darkness. The new Brazilian leader, who might be described as turbo-Trump on steroids, is an incorrigible homophobe: If he had a gay son, he’s said, he would prefer that he die in a traffic accident. Bolsonaro is also an unrepentant misogynist: He described the birth of his daughter, after four sons, as the product of “a moment of weakness.” He opposes the fight against global warming, condones torture, rails against minorities and indigenous tribes, supports the right of citizens to kill suspected criminals, misses the murderous military junta that ruled Brazil for 20 years until 1985 and has said that the Brazilian parliament should be dispersed and its Supreme Court purged and upended.
Bolsonaro’s victory in the recent Brazilians elections is a significant reinforcement to the ranks of nationalist, authoritarian and minority-hating leaders that have recently become Netanyahu’s main reference group. During his visit to Brazil, Netanyahu also met with U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, his Hungarian pal Viktor Orban and Honduras President Juan Orlando Hernandez, who is known in Israel mainly for the public outcry that forced him to cancel his participation in this year’s torch-lighting ceremony on Independence Day. Hernandez is a man after Netanyahu’s own heart: Not only has he stifled dissent, banned human rights organizations and used violence to quell protests, but he has packed the Honduran Supreme Court with cronies who in turn sanctioned the violation of the Honduran constitution, which limited a president’s term to one. In November, Hernandez was elected to his unconstitutional second term.
Netanyahu knows that, like him, the Israeli public tends to not look gift horses in the mouth. Trump could be a threat to world peace, Bolsonaro might be a reactionary nationalist, Orban may be choking Hungarian democracy and the Philippines’ Rodrigo Duterte might be killing drug addicts and political rivals by the thousands, but for Netanyahu, they are all wise, enlightened and courageous – even messiahs, as in Bolsonaro’s middle name and Persian Emperor Cyrus, who the bible refers to as “messiah-king” and to who Trump has often been compared.
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As long as they support Netanyahu’s right-wing policies, oppose its critics and detractors and are willing to make the right noises, at least, about moving their embassies to Jerusalem, Netanyahu will make sure to sing their praises, to intervene on their behalf – as he did by arranging a meeting between Hernandez and Pompeo – and to do his best to whitewash their sins. His fawning for tyrants and dictators, which has turned into a habit, damns Israel in the eyes of those who believe in the rule “Tell me who your friends are, and I’ll tell you who you are.”
But Netanyahu doesn’t make do with the wave of populism and nationalism that is sweeping democracies around the world. His Israeli predecessors didn’t shy away from dealing with foreign devils either, though they did so discreetly and with no fanfare. Netanyahu actually boasts of his new compadres. He takes credit for their reversal of policy toward Israel – though this is often but a derivative of their fundamentalist or ethnocentric views, he is the only democratically elected leader who goes out of his way to be seen in their company.
Judging by his extraordinary statement in Rio about the looming decision by Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit whether to indict him on various charges of corruption, Netanyahu seems to draw more than support from his rogues’ gallery of friends, emulating their ways and using them as role models. From far-away Rio and Brasilia, Netanyahu escalated his efforts to carry out what is nothing less than a putsch against the rule of law.
His call to Mendelblit to postpone the publication of his decision whether to indict Netanyahu because of the upcoming April 9 election would be considered, in other times and other countries, nothing less than a scandal: A political leader who stands accused of crimes and misdemeanors exploiting a state visit and the prominent platform it gives him to pressure a public prosecutor to adapt his decisions to the leader’s political needs. In the age of Donald Trump, who wages a daily guerrilla war against U.S. investigators and attorneys in order to save his own skin, such flouting of accepted norms has unfortunately become the norm.
Netanyahu also learned from Trump – as if he needed private lessons – that in the eyes of his right-wing base, truth, facts and even democracy itself are of negligible importance compared to victory in the holy war against liberal elites and the left. In a meeting with Jewish settler leaders last week, Netanyahu went so far as to describe the left’s wish to replace him by winning the election as somehow treasonous. If the free choice of Israeli voters is null and void if they don’t make the right choice, this is certainly true of an appointed official such as Mendelblit, whose verdict could directly influence Netanyahu’s prospects of remaining in office.
Netanyahu’s statement in Rio was a preemptive strike against a Channel 2 News report published 24 hours later, by which Mendelblit had secretly consulted with former attorney generals and Supreme Court judges about his upcoming moves. According to the report, Mendelblit agreed with the opinion of the overwhelming majority of his peers that the public’s right to know obligates him to try and publish his findings before the election is held. After all, Netanyahu’s call for an early election was meant to forestall Mendelblit, allowing Netanyahu to thwart possible criminal charges by brandishing his renewed mandate from the public. He didn’t consider the possibility that Mendelblit would respond by speeding up his own deliberations in order to avert Netanyahu’s ambush.
Netanyahu’s prepared statement from Rio on prime-time Israeli television was a blend of distorted facts and intentional misrepresentation, a deception wrapped in a lie inside blatant misrepresentation. Netanyahu referred to Mendelblit’s expected decision as a summons to a hearing, as if it was a mere disciplinary action, rather than a consequence of an evidence-based decision to indict, which, like with all public officials, is subject to a prior hearing of the accused’s objections.
Netanyahu asserted, “Israel is a country ruled by law and according to the law, a prime minister doesn’t have to resign” because of what he euphemistically described as “a hearing process,” a half-truth is worse than a lie. Israel’s Basic Law: The Government does obligate the prime minister to resign if and when he is convicted and his verdict is final but says nothing about resigning in the wake of a criminal indictment. Netanyahu knows full well that the same law does not require a cabinet minister to resign upon being indicted either, but this was nonetheless the verdict of the High Court of Justice, which ruled 25 years ago in the case of then-indicted Interior Minister Arye Dery that his continued service as minister under such circumstances was “unreasonable.” It’s true that the prime minister’s status is different, because his resignation brings down the entire government, but it’s equally true that given his crucial position, continued service while under indictment, never mind standing trial, is unreasonable in the extreme.
Netanyahu and his disciples also distort the legal presumption of innocence, which Netanyahu would enjoy like any other defendant in a criminal trial, as if it applies somehow to his political fortunes as well. The attorney general, however, is not a prosecutor from another planet, but the government’s supreme legal authority. His decision to indict means that he believes that the evidence backs an unsavory conclusion that the prime minister is a criminal. It won’t bind Netanyahu’s judges, of course, but it’s not a passing comment that can be ignored either. And that’s before we consider the degradation of the prime minister’s post and the objective difficulty of running a country while defending oneself in the accused’s dock in court. Netanyahu’s conduct so far – his fight against police investigators, his emissaries’ campaign against the rule of law and his effort to turn his august position into a protective shield against indictment – is proof enough of the damage than can be caused by a prime minister who is a suspect, never mind one who’s been formally charged.
His campaign to escape conviction must have also made Netanyahu forget where he’s living. “No one has the right to interfere with the people’s choice of prime minister,” he said, as if Israel is a presidential democracy in which the leader is elected directly, rather than a parliamentary democracy, in which the Knesset chooses the prime minister. More than most other serving politicians, Netanyahu is keenly aware of the difference: The 1992 law which instituted direct elections was passed only by virtue of Netanyahu’s decision to buck party discipline imposed by the Likud, which opposed the change. Netanyahu and Ehud Barak are the only Israeli politicians who were both voted into, and ousted from office directly by voters, before the law was summarily scrapped from the 2003 election onwards. Since then Israel has reverted to its parliamentary system, one in which the proverbial “will of the people” is revealed only when a coalition is formed and the Knesset votes a new prime minister into office.
Which also undermines Netanyahu’s attempts to counter Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked’s assertion that his next term in office will be his last. “The determination of whether you are worthy of leading the nation or not does not reside, with all due respect, with this or that politician,” Netanyahu said, “but with the citizens of Israel”, which is pure poppycock. In a parliamentary democracy, especially one as fragmented as Israel’s, it is politicians, and not the public, that determine who will serve as prime minister. If Finance Minister Moshe Kachlon had decided in 2015 that his 10-member caucus would back Yitzhak Herzog rather than Netanyahu, the former Zionist leader would be prime minister today. By Netanyahu’s yardstick, it is Herzog who would then embody the people’s choice.
Netanyahu, of course, isn’t worried so much by being summoned to a hearing but by the publication of the evidence and testimonies that would back the attorney general’s decision to indict him, subject to said hearing. In this regard, the so-called big bangs that have already rocked Israeli politics since early an election was called – both on the right and on the left – are mere firecrackers compared to the nuclear meltdown of the upcoming election campaign if Mendelblit decides to charge Netanyahu, to exonerate him or to refrain, despite current expectations, from saying anything at all.
The conventional wisdom, backed by the polls, holds that Netanyahu will win the election no matter what, despite the heavy cloud of corruption that hangs over him. If the predictions are borne out, and if Netanyahu sticks to his guns, his fourth term in office could see the final decisive battle over Israel’s image and essence. If Netanyahu wins his war, he’ll be elevated from fan in the bleachers to a full-ranking member in the disreputable club of nationalist, democracy-despising leaders that he currently fosters. In South America, which is now the focal point of Netanyahu’s claim to foreign policy fame, the yearning for a strong leader has long overshadowed honest government, criminal indictments, the rule of law and democracy itself.