People who met with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in recent months have heard lengthy speeches that seemed to be taken from one of Oliver Stone’s conspiracist screenplays. He told them that even though he has been elected repeatedly, in reality, the country is controlled by a “deep state.”
“There’s no democracy here, but a government of bureaucrats and jurists,” he said.
The strings of this shadow government are ostensibly pulled by the prosecution, which Netanyahu views as more dangerous than Hezbollah’s precision missiles. Prosecutors and judges, he believes, have a symbiotic relationship whose goal is ousting him.
“They want to see me sitting in jail,” he said in one private conversation, where “they” meant the entire system. Even before the judges hearing his criminal cases were chosen, he was convinced that a hidden hand would arrange the most “left-wing” and least lenient bench possible.
Before the elections, when several ministers asked why Yisrael Beiteinu Chairman Avigdor Lieberman sought to topple him, Netanyahu repeatedly blamed those same hidden forces. “He’s being extorted,” the prime minister said.
In his view, the law enforcement agencies have information that would justify a criminal investigation against Lieberman, but won’t use it as long as he’s working to destroy Netanyahu politically. The information, he says, relates to Lieberman’s involvement in a major corruption case in which other members of his party were charged.
Lieberman has his own fantastic theory, in which Netanyahu was behind the investigation of that case.
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But a source familiar with both cases said that just as no evidence was found linking Netanyahu to his cronies’ corrupt behavior in the purchase of new submarines, no evidence was found tying Lieberman to his cronies’ behavior in the Yisrael Beiteinu case.
In 2009, when his political fate also depended on Lieberman, Netanyahu capitulated to all his demands, including the two portfolios that control the law enforcement system – justice (the prosecution) and public security (the police) – plus the chairmanship of the Knesset’s Constitution, Law and Justice Committee and a representative on the Judicial Appointments Committee. At the time, Lieberman was suspected of taking bribes in a case ultimately closed due to insufficient evidence.
Now, Netanyahu’s Likud and Benny Gantz’s Kahol Lavan are battling over those same sensitive posts. Netanyahu wants to keep the Public Security Ministry, which will apparently go to Miri Regev. In addition, Likud will apparently chair the Knesset Constitution Committee. Kahol Lavan will get the Justice Ministry if it in fact joins the government, so the next minister will certainly be less hostile to the law enforcement system than Amir Ohana.
Even before the decision to indict him was made, Netanyahu had adopted a strategy of smearing the legal system to destroy public trust in it and wear it down. Appointing Ohana was a key move in this campaign, and Netanyahu will undoubtedly be sorry to lose him.
Nevertheless, ceding the Justice Ministry seems like a trivial concession compared to the enormous gains, from Netanyahu’s standpoint, of dismantling the opposition and freezing planned legislation against him.
“Netanyahu’s getting something amazing here,” a senior government official said. “All the people who said they wouldn’t serve under him are accepting him as prime minister. Gantz, [Gabi] Ashkenazi and Co. are giving him legitimacy, and that also affects the legal system. So he gave up the justice portfolio and Ohana ... but on balance, it’s definitely worth it for him.”
Once the new government is formed, a search committee will be established to choose the next state prosecutor. For Netanyahu, ceding the Justice Ministry means losing the battle over who will get that job, assuming Likud and Kahol Lavan don’t make a corrupt bargain to change the appointment process and appoint a mutually agreed candidate. But Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit has already said that changing this process – which deliberately excludes the politicians from involvement in choosing the nominee – would be illegal.
Mendelblit will head the search committee, which will also include the Justice Ministry’s director general, the civil service commissioner, a jurist chosen by Mendelblit in consultation with the other two, and an academic. Assuming there is a sympathetic justice minister who adopts the committee’s recommendation, this means Mendelblit’s nominee will almost certainly get the job.
The three most likely nominees are Netanyahu’s prosecutor, Liat Ben Ari; Deputy State Prosecutor Shlomo Lemberger; and Military Advocate General Sharon Afek.
The appointment requires cabinet approval, and Netanyahu will certainly try to thwart a red-flag candidate like Ben Ari. But Kahol Lavan will likely have a majority in the cabinet for this decision, since three ministers from Netanyahu’s bloc are barred from participating due to current or future investigations against them – Netanyahu, Yaakov Litzman and Arye Dery.
The coronavirus crisis delayed Netanyahu’s trial. The next justice minister will decide whether to reopen the courts by its new start date, May 24. Both prosecutors and defense attorneys said the evidence probably won’t be heard until after the Jewish holidays in the fall, and then Netanyahu’s situation will become clearer.
“He’ll start the trial, respond, see how the winds are blowing, and then he can make a decision,” a politician who knows him well said, adding that he might seek to be appointed president.
Given that by law, the president enjoys complete immunity from prosecution, would the Knesset really elect him president while his trial is ongoing? “Absolutely, they’ll want to get rid of him,” the politician said, adding that the High Court of Justice wouldn’t necessarily intervene.
But senior jurists said the court certainly would intervene, because electing Netanyahu to a position that enjoys immunity would severely undermine equality before the law. The court “isn’t likely to accept the interpretation that existing criminal proceedings against someone should stop once he’s elected president,” one said. “That doesn’t jibe with the spirit of the law at all.”
One high-ranking politician said he doubted Netanyahu would seek a plea bargain, noting that during negotiations with Kahol Lavan, he rejected Gantz’s hints that he’d support pardoning Netanyahu if he quit. For Netanyahu, this politician said, the solution is the emerging unity government: He’ll remain prime minister for another 18 months, then become the vice prime minister, who can’t be fired, enabling him to conduct his trial while in office, as he wanted.
There’s also another possibility: Netanyahu will thwart formation of a unity government or break it up prematurely, hold new elections in another few months and, having dismantled the opposition that challenged him over the last year, win them. He would then form a right-wing government, which would pass legislation to stop his trial and prevent the High Court from intervening.
“When Netanyahu feels the public is with him, he’ll take provocative steps against the law enforcement system that won’t let Gantz remain in the government and we’ll have another election,” someone who knows him well predicted.
It’s very unlikely that Netanyahu could stop his trial, but nobody would be surprised to see him try. When the prime minister is convinced that he’s being conspired against by demonic figures battling him for control of the country, he can justify – to himself and to others – any action to protect himself against them.