Netanyahu’s Extortion-by-coronavirus Is by Far His Most Shameful and Least Forgivable Offense

The prime minister cites a national emergency to prove the need for unity but will never relinquish his main goal: Avoiding criminal trial

Chemi Shalev
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Netanyahu issues new restrictions during a press conference on the coronavirus epidemic, March 12, 2020.
Netanyahu issues new restrictions during a press conference on the coronavirus epidemic, March 12, 2020.Credit: Ohad Zwingberger
Chemi Shalev

Benjamin Netanyahu has amassed a damning slate of offenses against the State of Israel – besides his three criminal indictments.

For over a year, Netanyahu has suborned Israeli democracy, the rule of law and the overall interests of the state in his personal quest to escape the long arm of the law.

Haaretz Weekly Ep. 70Credit: Haaretz

But his moves in the past few days are the most cynical, shameful and unforgivable yet: They add insult to injury. They plow the pits of cynicism. They prove that patriotism is indeed the last refuge of the scoundrel.

Netanyahu is using the public’s justified fears of coronavirus to extort his rival Benny Gantz – and all of Israel, in essence – to allow him to continue his prison-break efforts in a new national unity government, which he, and only he, will head. Or face the consequences.

Netanyahu is already showing Gantz and the entire center-left what a steep price they will pay if they do not accede to his demands: They will be defamed and vilified as borderline traitors and they will be blamed for whatever toll the coronavirus takes, as only Netanyahu knows how. In other words, a criminal defendant is blackmailing the country to spring him from jail, threatening not only fire and brimstone, but also shame and calumny if they refuse. In many countries, that would be a crime in and of itself.

Whatever his shortcomings, Netanyahu could very well be the most competent politician around to deal with the challenges of the corona pandemic.  Most Israelis, including many of his fiercest critics, would grudgingly agree to him continuing to serve as prime minister, as long as he does not exploit his position to advance his personal legal agenda. That, however, is a bridge too far for Netanyahu: With all due respect to his country, his own freedom comes first.

While Netanyahu has been waxing almost hysterical about the need to unite in the face of the coronavirus, he has refused to yield an inch on any issue that might influence his criminal proceedings. Fighting coronavirus is critical, perhaps, but cannot compare in Bibi’s book to keeping on his proxy Justice Minister Amir Ohana, who has repeatedly shown his willingness to subvert the law to please his master.

Protesters hold signs that read 'Fascism scares me more than the coronavirus' in various languages, during a demonstration against the destruction of democracy in Rabin Square, March 19, 2020.
Protesters hold signs that read 'Fascism scares me more than the coronavirus' in various languages, during a demonstration against the destruction of democracy in Rabin Square, March 19, 2020.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

The same is true of Netanyahu’s no less outrageous demand not to replace outgoing Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein, despite the clear-cut 61-seat Knesset majority that seeks a new speaker, as prescribed by law. Revealing some details of his indirect contacts with rival Benny Gantz in a Saturday night interview, Netanyahu said that in his blueprint for a rotation of prime ministers – he goes first, of course – each would have his own tailor-made Knesset speaker with whom he can cooperate. First for Likud, then for Kahol Lavan.

Netanyahu’s demand, unprecedented in Israeli constitutional history, is meant to frustrate the possibility of a contrarian parliament that, unlike recent Knessets, would not serve as a rubber stamp. Netanyahu needs his own personal parliamentary puppet as speaker in order to maneuver the law in his favor and to avert Knesset legislation that might bar him from serving as prime minister in the future. That is the end-all and be-all of Netanyahu’s stand, which could be decided one way or another by the High Court of Justice within days, if not hours.

This is a far cry from the Netanyahu who, after returning to Israel from his successful diplomatic missions in Washington and New York, would rave about the superior U.S. constitution and the ingenious separation of powers between the three branches of government. After trying in vain to close the Knesset down under false pretexts of coronavirus concerns, Netanyahu is now trying to ensure that if his parliament were allowed to operate it would be at his beck and call.

Netanyahu is banking on Gantz’s naive sense of duty and love of country to do him in. He is playing a game of political chicken with his rival, in which he has a distinct advantage: Netanyahu will crash and burn the country before relinquishing his hold on power or his ability to exempt himself from standing trial.  If he does not get his way, Netanyahu will consign Israel to continued instability and paralysis, up to and including a fourth election campaign in the midst of the coronavirus crisis. Gantz is not made of such stern and cynical stuff.

Netanyahu’s first criminal charge, dubbed Case 1000, alleges that he took expensive gifts from benefactors in exchange for small favors: It’s a crime, but that’s how he has lived his entire life. His second criminal charge, known as Case 2000, claims that he negotiated a bribe in the form of positive press coverage with the publisher of a popular daily in exchange for his intercession with Sheldon Adelson, owner of the rival newspaper. It’s a crime, but Netanyahu’s obsession with the press has long evolved into mental illness: Perhaps he can claim an insanity defense.

The same is true of Netanyahu’s third and last criminal indictment, Case 4000, which alleges a similar quest for positive coverage in exchange for sweeping alterations in regulations in favor of a telecommunications giant. This was still the same Netanyahu we have always known, hobnobbing with the rich, bending the rules, skimming the boundaries between the accepted give-and-take of government and tit-for-tat corruption.

But to actually hold his country hostage, to play on his citizens’ fears, to exploit the coronavirus crisis for political extortion, to preach unity while sowing division and hate, to erode democracy under the guise of national security – all of these are far graver sins, even if they do not constitute actual crimes. And nothing highlights in starker colors why Netanyahu is no longer fit to serve as prime minister: He could have done a world of good if he would only put his country first, as he once would have. 

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