Attorney General Avihai Mendelblit formally submitted Benjamin Netanyahu’s 3-count indictment for corruption, fraud and breach of trust to the Knesset on Monday. Netanyahu now has 30 days to ask for parliamentary immunity. If time runs out, or if Netanyahu is refused, as currently seems likely, the pending indictment will automatically be formalized, Netanyahu’s three judges will be picked and a date for his trial will be set.
The most significant revelation in the indictments filed with the Knesset is that Mendelblit had called Bibi’s bluff. One of the reasons cited by aides for Netanyahu’s determination to cling to his job was that as sitting prime minister he would face a trio of judges in the Jerusalem District Court, which Netanyahu views as favorably inclined.
As a former prime minister turned ordinary citizen, Netanyahu might be tried before a single judge at the Tel Aviv District Court; the mere name of Israel’s liberal-leaning, Netanyahu-despising metropolis is enough to send shivers down the prime minister’s spine. Mendelblit accepted Netanyahu’s preference, essentially depriving him of another excuse to cling to his office.
The indictment also contained the names of no less than 333 witnesses for the prosecution, including celebs such as Arnon Milchan, Sheldon Adelson, Ron Dermer and Netanyahu’s own minister, Gilad Erdan. With such a star-studded roster, the trial promises to be a circus as well. And given the Israeli court’s reputation for sluggishness as well as Netanyahu’s lawyers’ penchant for delaying tactics, the trial could drag on for months and with appeals, even years.
But the most jarring appendix to the known text and details of the indictment, which were published several weeks ago, is a sentence-long technical addendum at its end. In accordance with Israel’s criminal procedure, the prosecution formally notifies the court that “there is a possibility that it will ask the court to impose an active prison term on the defendants, if they are convicted.”
The notification was a stark reminder of the gravity of the offenses Netanyahu is alleged to have committed, which was somehow lost in the shuffle. With the public and media almost exclusively focused on electoral politics and on Netanyahu’s unrelenting efforts to secure his own “Prison Break”, the damning details contained in the indictments have receded into the background. Whether Netanyahu broke the law or not, the evidence shows, almost beyond a shadow of a doubt, that he abused public trust and misused his office for personal and political gain.
Netanyahu’s blatant corruption only makes his ensuing campaign to defame his investigators and prosecutors and to compel Israel to go to two-going-on-three election campaigns even more outrageous and unforgivable. He concocted a blood libel, essentially, alleging that Israel’s top law enforcement officials were active participants in a sinister leftist plot to depose him by legal means. If Stalin had his 1953 “Doctors Plot”, Netanyahu has created and disseminated his own 2019 “Prosecutors Plot.”
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Under these circumstances, the possibility that his political rivals, who ran in the April and September elections as his antithesis, would join a government headed by Netanyahu is unconscionable and should be unthinkable. Doing so would retroactively legitimize Netanyahu’s divisive rhetoric and open incitement against the rule of law. And it would give him a license to keep on bludgeoning Israeli democracy - but this time with the advice, consent and active collaboration of those who promised to do the exact opposite.
Teaming up with Netanyahu is not - or at least should not be - an option. If there is no plausible avenue to setting up a new government without Netanyahu in the few days remaining before the Knesset automatically disperses - by Benny Gantz or the long-awaited Likud renegade - the opposition should embrace the least harmful option remaining: New elections. Yes, they would be the third round this year, would tarnish Israel’s image as a functioning democracy and would sow deep public disaffection with the democratic process - but all of these together pose a lesser threat than the one emanating from Netanyahu’s continued guerilla war against the rule of law and his reckless stoking of internal division and strife.
As long as Netanyahu is in power, the danger to Israel’s liberal foundations remains acute. He might be pushed aside by a finding from the attorney general that the president is barred from picking someone accused of high crimes to form a new government, but that would inflame and ignite the Israeli right.
His lawyers might work out a deal for presidential clemency before Netanyahu goes non trial, but champions of equality under the law would cry foul and the prime minister’s fans could continue to proclaim his innocence for evermore.
The healthiest avenue for Israel is that Netanyahu be removed by the people themselves. It’s true that new elections would serve Netanyahu’s purpose of gaining a few more months in office but it’s also true that no other form of ejection would placate his inflamed followers.
And if, contrary to current expectations, Israelis decide to give Netanyahu another term in office, despite the damning indictment presented to the Knesset this week, they probably deserve everything that they will surely get.