Analysis

Netanyahu's Trial Train Has Left the Station, but His Cronies Will Do Anything to Stall It

Creation of a panel tasked with discussing the premier's immunity is now a fait accompli, despite Knesset speaker's resistance ■ Labor and Meretz are entering into a shotgun wedding

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visiting Nahariya after fierce storms and flooding, Jan. 8, 2020
Rami Shllush

The deafening political noise surrounding Benjamin Netanyahu’s immunity request, rife with announcements, headlines and petitions to the High Court of Justice, has distracted attention from the dramatic events that began to unfold on Sunday: For the first time, an Israeli prime minister will have to appear (either personally or by means of his attorneys) before a parliamentary committee that will discuss his request for immunity from prosecution.

Haaretz Weekly Ep. 56Haaretz

The train of Netanyahu’s criminal trial has left the station. It’s expected to encounter quite a few mines planted along the track and to suffer many delays, but it can’t be stopped. Even if it tarries, it will eventually arrive, panting and bullet-ridden, at its final station: the Jerusalem District Court.

Prior to last April’s election, this would have seemed like a fantasy. Months later, on the eve of September’s election, its chances seemed negligible. But now, on the eve of the vote on March 2, it’s happening.

Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein was right when he said Sunday that this isn’t the end, it’s only the beginning (or, as Churchill put it, it’s the end of the beginning). But he went way too far when he said that comments about him by Kahol Lavan MKs sounded like something out of a mafia movie. Their threats to oust him were completely legitimate; Knesset bylaws permit that – under certain circumstances.

Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein after hearing the decision by the parliament's legal adviser that he cannot veto the convening of a Knesset House Committee to discuss granting PM Netanyahu immunity from prosecution, Jan. 12, 2020
Ohad Zwigenberg

Moreover, in this affair, the term “mafia” should be reserved for the prime minister’s cronies, who target anyone they dislike with a media lynching aimed at forcing that person to retire from the arena, while also warning the next-in-line of what awaits them. But the latest target, Knesset legal adviser Eyal Yinon, wasn’t scared. Nor were his predecessors in the police and prosecution.

Edelstein, who is bound by Yinon’s legal opinion, tried to walk between the raindrops on Sunday. He said he would not veto creation of the Knesset House Committee that will discuss the immunity request – but promised that insofar as it depends on him, he won’t allow the Knesset to become “the site of cheap election propaganda.”

If the speaker meant what he said, he’s likely to use his power to erect hurdles along the path of the hearings. For instance, by not convening the full Knesset, which must approve the committee’s establishment, promptly. Only Edelstein is empowered to convene it.

If Edelstein tries to drag out the process, the High Court will be asked to make a decision, this time with the petitioners coming from Kahol Lavan. But a decision to the contrary will lead to a petition against the speaker from within his own Likud party.

Edelstein’s effort to stay dry will likely fail; that’s something that’s not so easy to do during this tough winter. He hasn’t satisfied the right – and certainly not Netanyahu, who’s never satisfied anyway – but he also hasn’t satisfied the left. He has been caught in a perfect storm, like many others whom fate put in the prime minister’s way.

A race seems to be taking place here on two parallel tracks: the parliamentary and legal one, and the Knesset and High Court one. Every parliamentary decision will be challenged in court. On Sunday, we saw a ridiculous petition submitted by Likud asking that the Knesset legal adviser be barred from publishing his opinion – as if it were some sort of a national security crime.

The party’s petition was deservedly thrown out, but it contained a message: Likud will persist. If the court grants its petitions from time to time, so much the better. If not, that will serve as proof of its claim that the legal system is persecuting it.

Facing the music

Meanwhile, kicking and screaming, and just three days before the deadline for finalizing the slates for the 23rd Knesset, Labor Party Chairman Amir Peretz has been dragged into the vaunted center-left alliance, in the form of a merger with Meretz-Democratic Union. He was vanquished by the mounting pressure coming from his own electorate. Until recently, he could still be heard insisting that the door to Meretz should be closed “gently, not with a slam.” But on Sunday, he was forced to face the music, as the Americans put it.

Labor Party Chairman Amir Peretz and Gesher Chairwoman Orli Levi-Abekasis, in Tel Aviv, July 18, 2019
Nir Keidar

For weeks, Peretz has gone out of his way – and sometimes out of his mind – in his efforts to persuade his interlocutors (some of whom were allies but are no longer) of the disadvantages of the union. Sometimes he sounded positively messianic, almost like (but not to be compared with) the other Peretz: Rafi Peretz of Habayit Hayehudi. Now that the merger has, after all, come about, we will be hearing Amir Peretz praising it with the same zeal, fire and faith he demonstrated when opposing it.

As time passed, the public campaign by veteran leftists for Labor to take the step with Meretz has intensified as the one within Peretz’s party grew increasingly shrill.

Among Labor’s four Knesset members, Itzik Shmuli was the first to do the right thing: first privately, then in an op-ed published in the Haaretz Hebrew edition. Omer Bar-Lev gallantly joined him, even though the merger will likely leave him outside the parliament. When Peretz balked, Shmuli informed him that he will consider himself free to act independently, since he has no intention of sitting quietly by on the deck of a ship heading for an iceberg. Apparently that threat is one of the goads that pushed Peretz into the arms of his brothers and sisters in Meretz-Democratic Union.

Today the Labor chairman definitely deserves kudos in his camp, for not hunkering down to the death in his private fortress together with Gesher leader Orli Levi-Abekasis. She, formerly considered an obstacle as unmovable as Peretz, perhaps even moreso, showed up on Channel 12’s news program Sunday night and applauded the “technical” union with Meretz – despite the fact that she’d said in the past that the chasm between them was unbridgeable. Well, when the alternative is to be forced into retirement, a chasm may suddenly look like a mere crack.

The problem is that such a ticket, assuming it is indeed forged, looks like a wedding in which one side was been dragged under the chuppah through threats and force. There is a vast difference between this and the hoopla that accompanied the establishment of the Democratic Union – the united ticket of which Meretz is the chief component – on the eve of last September’s election, when the excitement quickly dissipated, as the ticket plunged from 10 seats in the polls to five on Election Day.

That sort of feeling could undermine the new Labor-Meretz slate even before the voters’ natural, last-minute decision to vote Kahol Lavan does.

When Ehud Barak placed himself 10th on the Democratic Union roster, it was perceived as a gambit. However, the agreement that needs to be signed by Wednesday between four parties is particularly fraught due to constraints and the potential for onerous clashes between aims and egos. This time there will be a tooth-and-nail battle over the ninth and 10th places on the slate, even though people that low down probably won’t make it into the next Knesset anyway.

Apropos Barak, the prevailing assumption in the Democratic Union is that the campaign he led last fall was responsible for bringing in its fifth seat. He did it for the greater good, knowing perfectly well that in 10th place, he wouldn’t be serving in the Knesset. Even if he had made it in, he wouldn’t have found his place in the opposition. Barak put his ego aside and won the esteem of his party for it. Maybe Stav Shaffir – the one being booted off in this episode of the “reality show” – should emulate him: deflate her inflated ego and unwarranted arrogance, ask to receive the 10th place, whether symbolic or not, and work hard for it. If she accedes to the wishes of some of her supporters and runs independently, she could badly damage the chances of the center-left to improve its showing on March 2. As a person to whom “unity” matters so much, she surely wouldn’t want that.