Analysis

To Survive Three Bribery Cases, Netanyahu May Push Israel's Democracy to the Brink

If Netanyahu wins the coming election, which all the polling currently indicates he will, he will use that as vindication for his legal position

FILE PHOTO: Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks at The Prime Minister's Israeli Innovation Summit in Tel Aviv, Israel October 25, 2018. REUTERS/Amir Cohen/File Photo
\ Amir Cohen/ REUTERS

There is nothing surprising about the police recommendation to indict Benjamin and Sara Netanyahu in the so-called Case 4000 investigation – neither the details nor the charges, which have all been leaked to the press. There’s nothing surprising, either, about calls from the opposition for Netanyahu to resign and the fact that his ministers have rallied around him.

The lines on what is called the telecom affair were drawn months ago, as the prime minister's proxies in the media prepared the case for his defense. So far, they've been effective. Instead of emphasizing the bottom line – that the prime minister of Israel is now suspected by the police in three separate cases of bribery – the media is now obsessing over the "timing" of the recommendations, released on Police Commissioner Roni Alsheich’s last full day on the job

This is the first pillar in Netanyahu's defense: That the allegations of bribery are all the result of a bizarre vendetta against him by Alsheich. The absurdity of a commissioner he personally appointed – a former Shin Bet security service investigator with right-wing views who actually lived most of his adult life in West Bank settlements – wanting to take down the most successful prime minister of Israel's right hasn't stopped this claim from gaining purchase in the public mind. 

>> Read the Haaretz investigation that started it all: The Israeli news site in Netanyahu's pocket ■ Opposition calls on Netanyahu to resign

Other pillars of Netanyahu's defense are also under construction. One is the “cosi fan tutte” defense (everybody does it) – that all politicians talk to media proprietors, and therefore there was nothing untoward about Netanyahu's conversations with Bezeq owner Shaul Elovitch, and nothing wrong with urging him to provide the prime minister with more favorable coverage on Elovitch’s Walla news site. The third pillar will be that the coverage was not that favorable anyway, certainly nothing more than a successful prime minister like Netanyahu deserved. 

Police recommendations in Case 4000

Netanyahu's official and unofficial spokesmen are gunning for the section of the Bezeq bribery charge that deals with what Elovitch allegedly did for Netanyahu, as that will be the easiest part to prove. There is extensive evidence of the meetings and phone calls between Netanyahu and Elovitch and their wives, and numerous interviews with employees at Walla who have told how they were ordered to skew their coverage in Netanyahu's favor and highlight puff pieces about Sara Netanyahu. All this has already been reported extensively and is easily understood by the average news consumer.

The other side of the alleged bribe is much more complex. How the regulatory decisions made by the Communications Ministry, when it was under Netanyahu's ministerial supervision, worked in Bezeq's favor is not only more difficult to prove in a court of law, but will be the kind of financial minutiae that most of the public will struggle to follow. And this is a case that will be judged by the Israeli public long before Netanyahu gets his day in court – no earlier than 2020, assuming Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit does ultimately decide to indict Netanyahu in cases 1000, 2000 and 4000 (the latter being the telecoms affair). 

If Netanyahu wins the coming election, which all the polls currently indicate he will, he will use that as vindication for his legal position as well. The nation will have found him not guilty – that will be the narrative. And that will be crucial for him to brazen out the long legal process, as he intends to do – becoming the first Israeli prime minister serving under an indictment, continuing to run the country while defending himself in court. 

Everything Netanyahu has been doing for months now, and will continue doing over the coming election campaign, is to prepare the groundwork for the massive showdown that will come once the indictments are final. He is framing it as a clash between the will of the people, embodied by the prime minister, and the dark machinations of unelected attorneys and judges.

Netanyahu is fully aware that once he is indicted, the legal situation will be totally unclear, no matter what his proxies say in public about the law being clear that a prime minister must resign only after he has been convicted in court. 

An elected prime minister who insists on remaining in office despite multiple indictments will be challenged in the High Court of Justice. However the judges are inclined to rule, it will have all the makings of a constitutional crisis, with the judicial branch of government having to decide whether the elected branch can remain.

This would be a dire situation for Israeli democracy, and Netanyahu is already doing everything he can to exacerbate it.