A person who worked with Benjamin Netanyahu after his 2009 election victory recalled recently that when his boss returned to the Prime Minister’s Office, he met with then-Attorney General Menachem Mazuz. “Mazuz waited in the reception area. Netanyu came out of his office, approached him, shook his hand and walked him to the office,” said the person, who spoke with Haaretz on condition of anonymity. “It was a small gesture that demonstrated Netanyahu’s respect for the judiciary and perhaps even his fear of it, and certainly his desire to maintain good relations with it.” Mazuz is largely responsible for enabling Netanyahu’s return to the Prime Minister’s Office in March 2009, nearly a decade after he left it, after ordering the criminal investigation of his predecessor Ehud Olmert, which interrupted his term at its height.
Netanyahu entered his second term armed with a lesson from the first one – not to become involved in a head-on collision with the legal establishment. Yehuda Weinstein, Mazuz’s successor as attorney general, was one of the people closest to Netanyahu; they spoke daily and met regularly. As long as Weinstein didn’t order examinations and investigations against the Netanyahus and didn’t challenge them on the ethical or criminal spheres, the prime minister acceded to all his demands and carefully protected him and the status of the legal system.
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When MKs Yariv Levin and Zeev Elkin submitted a bill requiring Supreme Court nominees to undergo a Knesset hearing and giving the Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee veto power over the appointments, then-Supreme Court President Dorit Beinisch contacted Weinstein and asked him to take action. Weinstein called Netanyahu, who crushed the draft law immediately and even criticized it harshly in public. “The independence of the Supreme Court is above everything,” he stressed. “There will be no such law in a government I head.”
In those days, Justices Aharon Barak and Beinisch and their spouses were dinner guests at the prime minister’s residence in Jerusalem. Relations between Beinisch and Netanyahu were very good, and she even invited the prime minister to a closed meeting with all the justices. Several of those present later reported being very impressed by the guest’s analytical abilities and his understanding of the democratic game.
Netanyahu felt at the time that he and Beinisch were allies confronting a common enemy who sought their destruction, Yedioth Ahronoth publisher Arnon Mozes. A senior Likud lawmaker who was on good terms with Netanyahu at the time recalled that on one occasion the head of the executive branch, Netanyahu, invited the head of the judicial branch, Beinisch, to the official residence to consult with her on defeating the threat Mozes posed to them. “Beinisch responded, ‘What exactly can we do?’” the lawmaker told Haaretz.
Weinstein resigned as attorney general in early 2016. Netanyahu tried to find a replacement who would maintain the status quo between the judiciary and the executive. Cabinet Secretary Avichai Mendelblit was chosen. Several weeks later, Mendelblit received explosive recordings documenting a secret bribery deal that Netanyahu and Mozes had allegedly tried to cook up between themselves. These recordings indicated that while he made sure to maintain a clandestine balance of terror with the legal system – “don’t threaten my survival, and I’ll guarantee your survival” – Netanyahu tried to fundamentally shake up the Fourth Estate, while crossing red lines and using governmental power.
Mendelblit dragged his feet when the initial suspicions against Netanyahu arose, to the point where the heads of the State Prosecutor’s Office felt he faced a grave conflict of interest and should recuse himself from the investigations. But when the evidence against the prime minister mounted, the attorney general indicted Netanyahu in three cases.
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Throughout the period when he was being questioned as a possible criminal suspect, a few of Netanyahu’s close associates noticed an extreme change in him vis-à-vis the legal establishment. Aside from displays of anger and personal disappointment in Mendelblit, whom he portrayed as a victim of extortion who had betrayed him, Netanyahu began conjuring complicated conspiracy theories about the power structure of Israeli government, in the style of the films of John Frankenheimer and of Oliver Stone.
He claimed the judiciary was in effect a “deep state,” secretly controlled by an 84-year-old retiree with pretensions of ruling the country: former Supreme Court President Aharon Barak. Netanyahu believed that from his home in central Tel Aviv, Barak influenced several key players in the legal establishment with the goal of ending Netanyahu’s rule and, in effect, the Jewish state whose ember Netanyahu safeguarded.
His interlocutors heard him lecturing passionately and with profound internal conviction about the fact that the legal system is in effect a single entity with one common interest. “They want to see me in prison,” he said repeatedly. “The sentence against me is already written.” The sense of victimization and the burning belief that he has no chance of proving his innocence in court and that it’s in effect a “done deal” are what gave him legitimacy to fight against the schemers with occasional thuggish and dangerous use of public and political weapons. The public weapon he established was a well-oiled war machine that operated 24 hours a day to totally discredit the heads of the law enforcement system.
This strenuous campaign was comprehensive and effective: It caused prosecutors and investigators to be preoccupied with defending themselves and to develop paranoid feelings against the head of the pyramid. Both Mendelblit and the chief prosecutor in Netanyahu’s trial, Liat Ben Ari, have said in closed forums that they were convinced the government was spying on them. This blitz came at a high public price: Senior prosecutors and police officials, seeing how the lives of Mendelblit and Ben Ari were thoroughly disrupted, are now reluctant to investigate the political leadership. Even Supreme Court justices and judges in the Jerusalem District Court, where Netanyahu is being tried, show signs that they fear being targeted by Netanyahu’s aggressive machine.
The second weapon in the battle was political power. In April 2019, after he defeated the Kahol Lavan party in the election and was sure he had a coalition of 65 Knesset seats, Netanyahu decided to stop his trial through legislation and the neutering of the Supreme Court. “Stop being afraid,” he told associates who asked him to stop attacking the system that would decide his fate. “Let them start being afraid.”
He claimed at the time that in his opinion the state prosecution was as dangerous to the welfare of the state as the Iranian nuclear program. But then Avigdor Lieberman abandoned Netanyahu’s planned coalition, in a moment destroyed the grand plan of his former patron, and brought about a tie in three elections – suggesting voters were unwilling to give the key to a coup d’etat to a criminal defendant.
The newly penitent Mendelblit saw Lieberman’s surprising move as a kind of miracle and additional proof of divine supervision. He said at the time that if Netanyahu’s plot had succeeded, Israel would have officially become an undemocratic state. Even after the failure of his plan, Netanyahu’s operating assumption remained that he must remain prime minister as long as the trial against him is proceeding, in the hope that he will nevertheless be able to stop or subvert it, for example, by appointing a follower attorney general.
Faithful to Darwinist theory, he believes that as long as he is strong and on the attack – his chances of survival increase. For example, he felt that he had missed an opportunity when he turned off the war machine before the hearing in his criminal cases with Mendelblit, at the end of which he was accused of bribery. He believes that he demonstrated weakness and therefore paid a price.
On the other hand, he is convinced that the 11:0 outcome in the Supreme Court, at the end of which it was decided that he can serve as prime minister under indictment, is a result of the uproar prior to the ruling. In all their discussions with him, his associates heard him say that in any event he does not intend to try to reach a compromise with the legal establishment system in the guise of a plea bargain. “I’ll fall on my sword,” he said. In other discussions he was even heard accepting a gloomy and pessimistic conclusion, and mentioned the possibility of writing a book in prison.
But despite the fatalist tone, there are several people in Netanyahu’s milieu who are still convinced that he has a deep core of rationality, and that the moment he realizes that a return to Balfour is closed to him and that his power has been weakened, he will take steps to cut his losses.”It’s no coincidence that he didn’t support any of the candidates for the presidency,” hinted one of his confidants this week.
The big question is whether there is even a partner on the other side. A former legal scholar who knows Netanyahu well and observes the events from the sidelines recently said in a private conversation that “His only path to stopping the trial and reaching a plea bargain is up to the end of this year.” “Why,” he was asked. “Because Mendelblit is concluding his term and his replacement, who will probably be chosen by the Bennett-Lapid government, won’t dare to touch those cases with a 10-foot pole.”
Whether or not his trial will end, and whether or not a plea bargain is reached, the war conducted by Netanyahu against the law enforcement system, which he intends to intensify in the near future, opened deep cracks, and its influence won’t melt away even after he disappears from the public arena. “I’ll reduce confidence in them just as [former U.S. President Donald] Trump managed to undermine confidence in the FBI,” he once promised, and it seems that he kept the promise. After his departure, the law enforcement system will also have to do some soul searching with itself and wonder how a single politician, as strong and influential as he may be, managed to break its spirit and to destroy confidence in it. Apparently it arrived at the battle over Netanyahu’s criminal cases weak and fragile, with hostile feelings among large sectors of the public. Netanyahu only lit the match.
When the dust settles and relations between the government branches return to normal, the battle waged by Netanyahu against the legal system will be remembered mainly due to one decisive bottom line about the Israeli leader who almost succeeded in changing the nature of the regime only in order to extricate himself from his fate. That is probably what history will remember, if we really are in the final chapter and Netanyahu doesn’t return by storm to the premiership due to the resounding failure of his successors.