Opinion

Netanyahu's Ill-conceived Attempt to Turn the Attorney General Into a Political Rival

The prime minister is presenting Mendelblit with two options: Either be a patriot - which means loyalty to him - or a terrorist bent on assaulting the very heart of Israeli democracy

Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit during a meeting with students at Bar-Ilan University, on November 28, 2018.
Meged Gozani

Aided by the web of deception he is trying to weave around Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is now trying to claim that Mendelblit has the country’s fate in his hands. It’s as if the attorney general will be held to account if the country falls prey to the center-left and if Israel’s security, economy and international standing are harmed.

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Even if Netanyahu is just a suspect in the three criminal investigations pending against him, Mendelblit has been found guilty. That is because - so the argument goes - the harm done to Netanyahu is marginal compared to the fate of the nation if the attorney general announces his intention to indict the prime minister before the April 9 Knesset election.

Netanyahu is presenting Mendelblit with two options: Either be a patriot, meaning that he is loyal to the prime minister, or that he be considered a terrorist whose intent is to commit an assault on the very heart of Israeli democracy.

But Netanyahu is also offering Mendelblit a way out of this bind. The prime minister’s lawyers are now seeking to defer – not, heaven forbid, to quash – an announcement on Mendelblit’s decision regarding a possible indictment. An announcement on whether or not the attorney general intends to file charges against the prime minister would influence the voters and the election results, Netanyahu’s lawyers say, and from that point the road to the abyss is a short one.

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What they are saying is that the public is deaf and blind and hasn’t read newspapers or watched television over the many months of the investigation, and hasn’t formed any kind of opinion on the allegations against Netanyahu in the corruption cases. It’s an Israeli public that hasn’t gotten wind of the police recommendation to indict the prime minister and is still prepared to give his Likud party at least 30 seats in the next Knesset. It is this voting public that, God forbid, would change its positive opinion of its prime minister.

“We are working to ensure fair play for the prime minister, who is facing an election,“ a battery of lawyers said in a statement, with a straight face, in all seriousness, as if they were truly concerned about fair play.

Fair play? Let’s talk about fair play, the kind where the prime minister isn’t, as a practical matter, the editor in chief of a free daily newspaper that plies election advertising in the guise of news. Fair play of the type that would bar a prime minister’s wife from castigating the editor of a news website over its reporting about her and her husband. Fair play where a prime minister doesn’t appropriate national television air time to grumble about how he hasn’t been given the chance to confront the state witnesses against him.

If someone has destroyed the rules of fair play and tried to incite public opinion, it’s not the attorney general but rather the suspect, who is hiding behind a mantra that he himself has not been practicing. Nothing in what Netanyahu has done during the many months of the investigation has been fair. Even if he were to come face-to-face with fair play, he wouldn’t know it when he saw it.

“The attorney general isn’t required to share his decision with the public,” suggests the battery of lawyers, which includes retired judges. If the public doesn’t need to know if the prime minister is going from being a suspect to a defendant before it votes on April 9, maybe his trial should also be held behind closed doors and a gag order placed on any information relating to the charges and the verdict. After all, there’s a limit to what the public has the right to know.

It’s an elastic argument that can be extended beyond Israel’s borders. Wouldn’t state security be harmed if the enemy were to know that the prime minister is suspected of corruption? Iran and Hezbollah and Hamas may draw the conclusion that Netanyahu’s public standing has slumped, that he wouldn’t have support if he wished to pursue military operations, because such operations would be seen as a diversion from his criminal case, meaning that this might be a golden opportunity for them to attack Israel.

A baseless argument? Of course, but it’s no less rational and reasonable than the fair play argument. And that’s just the opening act. We should snap up tickets to the gladiators’ match that Netanayhu will put on if Mendelblit doesn’t get the hint.