Analysis |

Best Political Drama: Israeli Election 2019, Starring Benjamin Netanyahu as O. J. Simpson

The prime minister is exploiting the right-wing’s eternal sense of victimhood to blind it to the incriminating evidence collected against him

Chemi Shalev
Chemi Shalev
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Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a Likud party meeting, January 4, 2019.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a Likud party meeting, January 4, 2019.Credit: Emil Salman
Chemi Shalev
Chemi Shalev

You know the one about the man who murdered his parents and then begged for the court’s mercy as an orphan? The saying is ascribed to Abraham Lincoln as a definition of hypocrisy and to the late and great Yiddishologist Leo Rosten as the height of chutzpah. One way or another, the analogy seems apt in describing Benjamin Netanyahu’s strategy in the run up to the April 9 election.

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Netanyahu, after all, called an early election for no other reason than to preempt Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit’s impending decision on whether to indict him on charges of corruption. The move, however, spurred Mendelblit to accelerate his deliberations on the Netanyahu criminal files out of conviction that the public has a right to know before it casts its vote. So Netanyahu now accuses Mendelblit of undue haste, even though it was his foot that pushed the gas pedal in the first place.

Haaretz Weekly Ep. 11Credit: Haaretz

To buttress his argument, Netanyahu is now crying foul that if Mendelblit pronounces his decision before Israelis go to the polls, “they will hear only one side of the story”. In the two years that have passed since the police started its first probe of his alleged wrongdoing, nothing and no one prevented Netanyahu from explaining his suspected criminal behavior to the public. Other than repeating his catchy mantra “There will be nothing because there was nothing,” Netanyahu has failed to volunteer any rationale for accepting gifts from rich friends, conniving to benefit a major publisher in exchange for positive coverage or making a mint for a telecommunications giant for much the same reason.

Similarly, Netanyahu has never elaborated on the fourth investigation, in which police determined he was not a suspect, concerning alleged shady dealings in connection with the purchase of German submarines. He has failed to produce an alternative explanation – besides corruption or gross negligence – to the undisputed fact that so many of his closest confidantes and advisers were in on the deal and making a mint out of it.

Instead, though he is accused of lesser crimes, Netanyahu’s defense strategy seems to be taken from the O. J. Simpson School of How to Get Away with Murder. The evidence is compelling and the police and prosecutors who work under Mendelblit are confident of conviction, but Netanyahu is appealing directly to a jury that he hopes will preempt his judges, if and when they are appointed. In lieu of a trial by his peers, which Israel does not have, Netanyahu has appointed the Israeli public as his Grand Jury, hoping that its decision on April 9 will render a verdict that will speak louder than his actual legal proceedings, if not upend them completely.

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Netanyahu has yet to deny any of the allegations, even though these have been substantiated factually, if not legally. His defense is not based, to borrow from O. J., on refuting the DNA, the blood in the car, the history of domestic violence, the infamous chase after the fleeing Bronco or the eyewitnesses who placed him at the scene. Instead, Netanyahu is focusing on what he describes as the malevolent intentions of the system and on the deep sense of victimhood ingrained in his right wing fans, which he relentlessly fosters and nurtures.

In his efforts to undermine his accusers, Netanyahu regularly inflates unconnected statements to prove his point. Los Angeles Police Detective Mark Fuhrman may have found a glove in Simpson’s home with his murdered wife’s blood on it, but his reprehensible use of the derogatory N-word in the past was enough to discredit the evidence. Likewise, former Police Chief Roni Alsheich may have macro-managed Netanyahu’s investigations professionally and impartially, but his unproven assertion that private investigators were following police investigators was brandished as proof of his anti-Bibi bias. Now that Mendelblit has replaced Alsheich as Netanyahu’s potential nemesis, his view of the public’s right to know is being cast as ironclad proof of his malevolence.

Netanyahu’s case is built not on what he did but on what he is. In the spirit of Donald Trump’s recent maxim that one does not impeach a president “who’s doing a great job,” Netanyahu is urging his voters to turn a blind eye to the illegal acts of which he is accused and to focus on what he’s achieved for them instead. Whether or not I took bribes pales in significance, he suggests, compared to the enormity of putting me on trial. Hounding right-wingers has been the long-established practice of the leftist elites that continue to call the shots, he implies, even though both Alsheich and Mendelblit were his own appointments.

Objectively, of course, there’s no comparison between the very real discrimination suffered by African Americans, including the police, and the delusionary sense of persecution harbored by many Israeli right-wingers. The Mapai establishment did indeed discriminate against members of Likud progenitor Herut in the 1950s and the civil service has yet to disqualify employees on account of their political views – though a purge is in the offing if Netanyahu wins on April 9 – but the right-wing myth of eternal victimhood is a force too powerful to be undermined by mere reality. With Netanyahu’s active encouragement, it remains as potent as ever.

Netanyahu does not fear the fact that Mendelblit may announce his decision to indict him, subject to a hearing, but he does fear the facts and evidence pertaining to his decision that will necessarily be published at the same time. These will undoubtedly show, contrary to Netanyahu’s staple denials, that “There will be something because there was something.” His only course is to appeal to voters to follow their emotions rather than rely on their logic, to exonerate him because of his persona, stature and charisma instead of convicting him because of facts they know to be true.

His first objective is to deter Mendelblit from making any decision before April 9. His second is to delegitimize any such decision in advance. His third is to win the election and to cast them as tantamount to complete exoneration, while using his renewed public mandate in order to beat Mendelblit and the Attorney General’s Office into submission. According to some observers, Netanyahu is actually upping the ante in advance of a deal with Mendelblit, who will see his indictments quashed in exchange for his resignation from public life.

If all goes well, in a few years Netanyahu will confess, in jest, to all the wrongdoing ascribed to him. Then he’ll write a book titled “I Did It,” to which he will add, at the very last minute, the word “If,” if only to spare his fans from admitting they were bamboozled.

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