U.S. pro-Israel Groups Backed Into a Corner to Defend 'Vibrant Democracy' After Netanyahu Indictment

It isn't easy when the only democracy in the Middle East has a prime minister promoting a conspiracy theory and attacking his own attorney general

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Supporters of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu wave flags and placards as they rally to express their solidarity, outside his Jerusalem office on November 23, 2019. 
Supporters of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu wave flags and placards as they rally to express their solidarity, outside his Jerusalem office on November 23, 2019. Credit: AFP

WASHINGTON — On Monday morning, Benjamin Netanyahu did something the likes of which no Israeli leader has done before: He invited his social media followers to watch an English-language video in which Israel’s legal system was denounced as a “deep state” entity that’s launching a “coup” against the prime minister.

Netanyahu asked his followers to “watch and share” a segment from Fox News that, referring to Israel’s legal system, said: “The deep state there is even deeper than over here.”

Historically, Israel’s leaders have celebrated the country’s independent legal system as a key element making the country the only democracy in the Middle East. Over the years, Netanyahu himself has made such comments in speeches to foreign audiences, touting Israel as a country where no one is above the law. Pro-Israel organizations in the United States often note that Israeli courts have sent both a former prime minister (Ehud Olmert) and former president (Moshe Katsav) to prison.

Netanyahu’s indictment last week for bribery, fraud and breach of trust has created a dilemma for pro-Israel organizations in the United States. On the one hand, the fact that a sitting prime minister has been indicted — and no less by an attorney general who had been appointed under Netanyahu and was once one of his closest aides — could easily be used to make a positive case for Israel as a strong democracy.

On the other hand, most pro-Israel organizations are usually loath to openly contradict the Israeli premier. What should they do when a prime minister promotes a conspiracy theory and goes on the attack against his own attorney general?

Last Thursday, shortly after Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit announced the indictment against Netanyahu, one response from the American Jewish community stood out. The Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations — an umbrella group of more than 50 Jewish organizations, all of them supportive of Israel — praised Israel for being a country where “no one is above the law.”

The bulk of the statement was the following paragraph: “The State of Israel faces important decisions in the coming months as the legal process unfolds. Israel has proven itself again to be a strong, vibrant democracy and holds even its top officials to account by the most stringent standards. No one is above the law. The Prime Minister like all citizens is entitled to his day in court and to a fair and full process.”

In other times, this kind of declaration would barely have been noticed; it doesn’t say anything unusual. But at a time when the prime minister calls for the authorities to “investigate the investigators” who handled his corruption files (including a police chief he himself chose), it’s not obvious to applaud Israeli democracy for putting a prime minister on trial.

It’s not even obvious to mention that Netanyahu is entitled to his day in court. After all, Netanyahu and his supporters in his Likud party are pushing to grant him immunity from prosecution as long as he’s in office.

Another leading group known for its constant support of Israel, the American Jewish Committee, also offered a positive interpretation of last week's events. The group's CEO, David Harris, told Haaretz: “We have strong confidence in Israel’s judicial and political system, based on core democratic values, including, centrally, the rule of law, to navigate the complex and contentious pathway forward. Indeed, Israel’s vibrant democracy, unique in the region, is once again on full display. Others could learn from it.” 

Most mainstream Jewish organizations, however, have remained silent on the indictment issue. Some contacted by Haaretz referred this reporter to the Conference of Presidents’ statement and said they agreed with it. Others said they didn’t want to comment on a domestic Israeli political and legal question.

The leader of one Jewish American organization that routinely supports Israel told Haaretz that the indictment will help make the case for Israel as a strong democracy. “Whether or not Netanyahu is found guilty in court, the very fact that a democratic country can hold its leaders accountable to the rule of law is an important thing,” the leader said, requesting anonymity because of the organization’s policy not to comment on Israeli domestic politics.

“Not many countries around the world can boast of such a fair and open process where even the highest officials in the land are not above the rule of law.”

Netanyahu’s attacks on the legal system haven’t yet received the endorsement of any organization in the United States, not even right-wing groups. But they have been shared by right-wing media figures such as Mark Levin of Fox News and Caroline Glick of Breitbart. In a series of tweets after the indictment, Levin furiously attacked the Israeli legal system, calling the prosecutors “corrupt” and the Israeli media “even worse” than the U.S. media.

This wasn’t the first time Levin has attacked Israel’s legal system and independent media, two hallmarks of its democracy that separate it from nondemocratic countries in the Middle East. Levin also endorsed Netanyahu and attacked the corruption probe against him — right before the September 17 election, in a Fox News segment that was shared by the Netanyahu campaign with Hebrew subtitles. But that didn’t help Netanyahu, who failed to obtain a majority for Likud and the wider right-wing/religious bloc.

Among the Democrats, one group that offered a positive reaction to the indictment and tried to use it to highlight Israel’s democratic standing was the Democratic Majority for Israel, which strives to increase support for the country in the Democratic Party. “The U.S. Justice Department says a sitting president cannot be indicted. In Israel, the sitting Prime Minister was just indicted,” the organization wrote in a tweet. “In Israel no one is above the law.”