Netanyahu Might Be Out, but It’s Not Over Yet

Ehud Barak
Ehud Barak
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Opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu speaks at the Knesset, June 2021.
Ehud Barak
Ehud Barak

The key sentence in the speech by outgoing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the Knesset was “We’ll be back soon!” His speech was hollow, diplomatically irresponsible, rife with distortions and lies and seasoned with self-aggrandizement – but still an inciting and threatening speech.

I recommend treating the threat seriously, and turning the need to foil it into a clear-cut and decisive act. After the disgrace during the swearing-in session – pre-planned hooliganism, with Netanyahu wrapped in silence instead of standing up and demanding “Stop this unruly behavior immediately!” – we can’t downplay the risk.

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For the past five years Netanyahu has been crushing every vestige of statesmanship, truth and trust in public life. He is surrounded by a group of cronies that looks like a combination of a brainwashed sect and a crime organization. There’s a reason why security guards have been assigned to prosecutors, to the attorney general, to public figures and to all those considered his opponents.

Over the years, Netanyahu has also chalked up accomplishments. But subordinating his oath of office to his attempt to evade the law overshadows them. Netanyahu is attempting to pressure the prosecution with threats, until he is granted a lenient plea bargain. And later, in a display of victimhood, to extort a pardon from the president. All these things will go down in history as the country’s surrender to extortion by threats on the part of its leader.

The leaders of the government of change, Yair Lapid and Naftali Bennett, should realize that the hurt and desperate Netanyahu will be a lawless opposition, lacking responsibility or restraints. We saw the promo at the beginning of the week. In his efforts to return to power, and in light of his fear of the law, he won’t hesitate to make their lives miserable. Even at the price of harming Israel’s interests.

Netanyahu will not be deterred from starting a fire wherever possible, to harm Israel’s relations with the United States, or even to undermine our national security. And no, it’s not legitimate, just as the display of verbal violence that awaited prime minister-elect Bennett was not legitimate. “It’s lucky that they didn’t have plastic chairs,” remarked a shocked young man next to me. The leading Likudniks also understand that, and are silently hoping for decisive action by the government to end the Netanyahu era, for their sake as well.

Two laws could be passed in the Knesset, each of which alone could remove the threat: First, a law that mandates a ceiling of two terms or eight years for a prime minister, with a cooling-off period of four years before reelection. Even better is a law that would mandate something that is self-evident – that a person under indictment for crimes such as bribery cannot form a government in Israel.

It’s clear to everyone that there is no such article in the law, only because legislators never imagined that such a problem could arise. Just as nobody could imagine that a meeting of shareholders of a large bank would reelect the former chairman, who is on trial for embezzling the bank’s money. The governor of the Bank of Israel would immediately intervene and prevent that. The very process of passing one of these laws, even if it is challenged in the Supreme Court, would accelerate the process of the public, personal-emotional and political severance from Netanyahu.

The new government, whose success many of us hope for, is an innovative and very vulnerable structure – especially during the first five months, until the first two-year budget is passed. Netanyahu is basing the attempt to topple it on his political experience and his magician’s halo that has yet to disappear, on the widespread operation of networks at his disposal, on the political capital that he accumulated during the 12 years of his tenure, and on the solidarity of his sect of supporters – along with the chance that a mishap or unexpected event could cause the government to lose its majority and to collapse.

Under these sensitive conditions, it is highly probable that refraining from taking steps to distance Netanyahu entirely from the political arena would turn out to be an irresponsible gamble, with a very high price. And next time it will be very difficult, and perhaps even impossible, to repair the damage.

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