Benjamin Netanyahu’s response to Attorney General Avihai Mendelblit’s Thursday announcement of his impending indictment on charges of corruption should be viewed by Americans as a dress rehearsal for the benefit of Donald Trump. Netanyahu wrapped Trump’s familiar railings against the rule of law and its administrators in a polished and eloquent package, but the song remained the same: An innocent man hounded by sinister political enemies out for his head, at any price.
If reality bites, Netanyahu essentially urged his citizens, you can change it. Rather than account for the mountains of evidence that point to his alleged greed and corruption, Netanyahu concocted an Israel in which the rule of law has been suborned to serve the left and its lackeys. Instead of bowing his head to the supremacy of the legal system and vowing to prove his innocence in court, as might be expected of anyone than Trump and/or Netanyahu, the prime minister is, in essence, pushing his people to vote for a putsch. It will start if and when he wins the April 9 elections.
The question is whether the scores of damning pages that purport to back up Attorney General Avihai Mendelblit’s long awaited decision to charge Netanyahu with one count of bribery and two of fraud and breach of trust will help or hinder Netanyahu’s revolution. The answer hinges on whether Likud voters are a uniform bloc whose backing for their beleaguered leader increases in direct proportion to his legal travails or if the official publication of the indictments and minute details of Netanyahu’s sordid behavior will suffice to sway at least some to defect. Even the movement of 4-5 seats from right to left will change the balance of power and bring Netanyahu’s political career to an ignominious end.
As was the case in Wednesday’s dramatic testimony by Michael Cohen, for the loyal base of both leaders, the facts of the case are of negligible importance. Most of the GOP legislators who tried to discredit Cohen for his previous perjury to Congress would probably concede that Cohen’s portrayal of a President who lies, cheats and pays hush money to porn starlets rings true. But rather than confront the fact that they have anointed a crooked man who puts himself before his country, the Republicans find refuge in disseminating his wild conspiracy theories, crazy as they are. They fear the fierce revenge of Trump’s loyal fans, for which facts are whatever he says they are, more than their own consciences.
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Similarly, most Israelis, including die-hard Likud voters, could have easily identified Netanyahu’s footprints in Mendelblit’s 57-page indictment and 60 pages of supplementary evidence, even if his name had been redacted from the charge sheet. They have lived with Netanyahu long enough to identify his and his wife Sara’s legendary aversion to reaching into their own pockets, which only propels their eternal search for wealthy benefactors, such as Hollywood producer Arnon Milchan, who are willing to pay for the luxuries they crave nonetheless.
And other than those who are willingly blind, most Israelis should easily see the absurd contradiction between the Netanyahu whose public statements dwell obsessively on his unfair treatment by the press, and the suspect who ridicules the claim that he would be willing to pay any illicit price in exchange for better coverage. The press doesn’t bother me, says the man who seems consumed by its criticism.
In both the American and Israeli cases, political polarization and the consistent demonization of rivals have made the retention of power into the end all and be all for supporters of both leaders. Adhering to the rule of law and playing by the rules of the game are values increasingly shunned by both the Israeli and American right wing. The liberal left is the devil incarnate and the battle against it is a holy war that trumps increasingly anachronistic concepts of the fair play, honesty in government and supremacy of the law. If preserving power means undermining public trust in the legal system and its chief officers, so be it.
Nonetheless, despite the clear and present threat posed by Netanyahu’s efforts to portray the country’s police and justice apparatus as beholden to the pressures of the left and its agents, his position is pitiful as well. After 10 years in office, with numerous achievements on his record, the man who fancies himself a major player on the world stage has been reduced to spreading nutball conspiracy theories once confined to the homeless and delusional. It’s hard to tell which is more disturbing: That Netanyahu is willing to cynically lead his flock to a dark parallel universe in which the left remains in control despite being out of power for most of the past four decades - or that he now truly believes that he is a latter day Alfred Dreyfus hounded for what he is more than for what he is alleged to have done.
One telltale sign that the latter prognosis is true can be found in the fact that in his opening remarks, Netanyahu cited Trump’s praise from faraway Hanoi as his main character witness - and did so without batting an eyelid. Israelis may like Trump and appreciate his support for Israel, but citing a U.S. President who is embroiled in far more serious criminal investigations of corruption and collusion that would strike many of them as ludicrous. The fact that Netanyahu fails to see the irony, or is blind to Trump’s selfish motivation in suggesting from faraway Hanoi that a “smart and tough” leader should be freed of constraints of the law, is a worrying symptom that he has travelled farther than anyone could have expected into his imaginary Bizarro world where wrong is right, criminals are saints and justice is pure evil.
The April 9 elections will show just how many Israelis Netanyahu has taken with him. While many Israelis who presumed his innocence will be forced to reevaluate their belief in light of the concrete evidence supplied by the attorney general, others will be driven to stick it nonetheless to an establishment they have been indoctrinated to identify with leftist elites. Netanyahu's opponents will stress not only the principle that Netanyahu’s indictment renders him unworthy of leadership; they will ask the public whether, regardless of their view of Netanyahu’s alleged criminality, they truly want to reelect a prime minister who will concurrently appear in the court as an accused criminal and who will necessarily divert much of his attention and energies to proving his innocence.
These are now the stakes, which may have never been higher. If Netanyahu is reelected in less than 40 days, it will not only be seen as a personal vote of confidence and public vindication. He will be given a mandate to overturn the rule of law, disperse its remaining adherents in the legal apparatus, and detach Israel from the constitutional underpinnings that have held it together since its inception. If he succeeds, America should be put on notice: Trump will soon emulate his good friend and follow him into the twilight zone that exists only in the distorted mirrors of their minds.