Not a smidgen of humility or regret did we hear from defendant Benjamin Netanyahu on Thursday night. Israel’s first sitting prime minister to be charged with bribery, fraud and breach of trust neither bowed his head in shame nor gave any other indication of soul-searching.
Like any garden-variety criminal, he assailed the police investigators, the prosecutors and the attorney general in crude language and with boundless chutzpah. With his back to the wall, both figuratively and literally, and facing trial, maybe even prison, he gave shape to what has been written on the wall for three years now: He has no intention of going quietly and cutting his losses.
His hatred for the system and his deep conviction that he has been persecuted through no fault of his own, that he’s the victim of a Kafkaesque witch hunt, will lead him to places Israel has never gone before. It would be no exaggeration to say that the state is now in great danger. The security threats are significant and require judgment and supreme responsibility. But the man whose hands are on the wheel is fighting for his life, and he’s capable of anything.
The flags behind the prime minister’s residence were the same flags, the blazer was the same blazer. But the man in the suit wasn’t the same as he was the day before. He seemed empty, frightened, desperate. Like some kook who wanders the streets muttering meaninglessly into the air, he reiterated the talking points and clichés that he and his spokespeople have been reciting with varying intensity since 2017.
The defendant Netanyahu is more isolated than ever. His inner circle is filled with dubious characters, some of whom were recently questioned by the police on suspicion of witness tampering and harassment.
And at home await his wife and son, whose emotional stability some would term questionable. They are responsible – through their wickedness and infinite greed – for a large portion of his problems. As long as they’re around, dominating and controlling him, he’ll go from failure to failure.
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To borrow from the world of zoology, Netanyahu is a lame duck on the fast track to becoming a dead horse, but along the way he’ll fight like a wounded lion. The terminology in his provocative speech – “a governmental coup against the prime minister,” “libels,” “a tainted investigative process,” “the world of crime,” “fabricating cases,” “suborning witnesses,” “extortion” – were carefully taken from the deep-state lexicon and the warped world of conspiracy theories that he and his family inhabit.
Their main goal was to smear the law enforcement system as motivated by extraneous considerations and as attempting a coup against him, and also to inflame his supporters against it. To date, a very small fraction of them have been willing to take to the streets on his behalf. But he won’t rest until many more have been incited to leave their homes carrying burning torches.
How pathetic-sounding were the talking heads who repeated the mantra of “a sad day,” as if until Thursday everything was joyous in the State of Israel. As if Netanyahu and his cronies, advisers, ministers and Knesset members hadn’t joined up to help him tear down the foundations of Israeli democracy. Thursday wasn’t a day of sadness but one of optimism and pride: The corrupt leader, his aides and family had failed in their plot. The wheels of justice turned slowly, but they worked. Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit, in a manner worthy of respect, decided what he decided – and a court will rule.
Until the beginning of the trial, which is expected to be suitably delayed – and with the defendant and his lawyers not sparing any tricks to draw out the process – the political system will have to adapt to the new situation. The scenario of a unity government died a clinical death Wednesday and was buried six feet under Thursday. Nineteen days are now left for the MKs to find a way out before we’re dragged into a third election campaign. The main dilemma has been placed before the 31 Likud MKs not named Netanyahu. The heads of the parties in the rest of the right-wing bloc will also be forced to reconsider their steps.
How many spineless followers?
It’s highly likely that soon Mendelblit will provide President Reuven Rivlin with a legal opinion stating that an MK charged with bribery and fraud may not receive a mandate to form a government – not during the unprecedented period that will end in under three weeks, and not if Netanyahu is reelected to the Knesset and can forge a majority coalition after a March election – something that still seems unimaginable. In any case, the matter will land on the desks of the High Court justices; it’s very likely they’ll rule that way, too.
We’ll already be at the height of the election campaign – unless something totally unexpected happens and a different candidate earns the support of 61 MKs in the current Knesset, whose days are quickly drawing to an end. How will Likud’s ministers and MKs act if it becomes clear to them that their candidate to form a new government has been disqualified? Their situation will be like that of a company of soldiers doing battle in narrow alleys; they’ve lost contact with the top command and have no idea what to do.
How many senior Likud leaders will show this same ingratiating canine loyalty to the man about to lead them into the abyss? On Thursday, we heard only Likud MKs Miki Zohar and David Amsalem, and outside the party Bezalel Smotrich further to the right, who himself once escaped an indictment by the skin of his teeth. When the day of reckoning comes, will Netanyahu look back and find behind him only a few spineless members of his party and the right-wing crazies who demonstrate every week near Mendelblit’s home?
It’s obvious that the next election campaign will revolve only around the legal issues. The defendant will dress every day in the uniform of the victim, in Dreyfus’ prison uniform, and will shout out his innocence. Fifty million shekels ($14.5 million) – the Likud campaign budget – will be wasted on the party chairman’s “I’m innocent” announcement. Even given the reality of our lives that amazes us every day, it’s hard to believe that the Likudniks will let this happen. What worked for Shas in 1999 won’t work for the ruling party in 2020.
A primary to choose the party leader is required. On Thursday, Likud’s Gideon Sa’ar once again demanded that a leadership primary be held as soon as possible if a new election is called. “I think I will be able to form a government,” he told the Jerusalem Post Diplomatic Conference. What’s missing at the end of the sentence is clear: Netanyahu can’t. Before Thursday, Netanyahu was the only candidate, but it’s not at all certain things will stay that way.