Opinion

Netanyahu's Dilemma

Supporters of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu take part in a protest supporting Netanyahu after he was charged in corruption cases, in Tel Aviv, Israel November 26, 2019.
AMIR COHEN/ REUTERS

A friend who missed the latest episode of Israel's reality TV election asked me to catch her up. She stopped me when I began spiraling into the legal precedent set by Dery-Pinhasi determining whether a cabinet minister should remain in post after indictment. “Spare me this nonsense,” she said with a smile. “I’m no lawyer. I only want to know one thing: Was it a check?”

Of course it was a check. And Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, an amateur chess player, is fully aware of that. Netanyahu acknowledged publicly the injury he suffered, in the speech he gave November 21 after the attorney general announced his indictment. “This is a very difficult day,” he said in early in his address. He ended with: “What I’m going through isn’t easy. I, too, am human.”

Even in this strange era of post-truth, post-factual politics, the fact is that Netanyahu is now on a track leading him to the defendant’s chair and which might eventually lead, if he fails to plan his moves properly, to prison as well.

Netanyahu’s loyal attorney, the late Jacob Weinroth, believed that the prime minister should resign and try to reach a plea bargain in order to avoid a trial. Netanyahu rejected the idea at the time, and given his speech a week and a half ago, it seems he is still refusing to end the saga of his political life this way.

“They advised me to bow my head and abandon my principles, but the feeling of justice and truth burns within me,” he told the nation, adding, “I won’t let lies prevail.” Of course, he was less Shakespearean in the rest of his speech, attacking the police and the prosecution like a common criminal.

On Wednesday, in a video he posted on Facebook, he sounded calmer, and he stressed that no one is above the law. It was obvious that he had not yet made a decision. That’s understandable. Netanyahu is at a crossroads. In a certain sense it’s the dilemma of his life. It will determine how he will go down in history. Weinroth’s advice is a hundred times more relevant now. If Netanyahu signs a plea bargain and retires from politics he will even have a good story to tell, and plenty of apostles eager to spread it: “The putsch” succeeded, he can tell his followers. The leftist elites and the media besieged him by means of the judicial system and ousted the right from power. I was defeated, he can tell them. We were defeated. 15,000 people proved at Tuesday’s demonstration in Tel Aviv that the story has resonated. (Let’s not be petty.) The people are with him, Netanyahu will claim, but “the left” undermined their sovereignty and overthrew us.

On the other hand, if he takes the risk to cling to power and run in the next general election, then the worst-case scenario — for him —could come true. There’s a chance, proved by the sparse attendance at last week’s protest in the plaza of the Tel Aviv Museum of Art, just a few thousand people and a single cabinet minister — that in a third election he will discover that his voters have also abandoned him. A loss at the ballot box will lead to the collapse of the main story arc: that the people are with him. He will be left alone, abandoned, weak. His image as “King Bibi,” which has dominated our lives for 20 years, pursuing us like a song you can’t stop humming (“Iran,” “the Munich Agreement,” “the Arabs” and “the left and the media”), will vanish, replaced by an inmate in an orange jumpsuit, a false prophet of the Jewish people whose geopolitical observations don’t interest anyone.

He faces one huge historic dilemma. He should consult with Donald Trump.