Opinion

Netanyahu Should Follow His Own Advice

When Olmert was suspected of crimes, Netanyahu told him to step down. But precedent suggests that prime ministers suspected of crimes hang on to the horns of power

Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife Sara at a Likud rally in Tel Aviv on August 9, 2017 in a mass show of support for the PM who is facing a string of corruption investigations.
JACK GUEZ/AFP

“As a prime minister under investigation up to his neck,” Benjamin Netanyahu once said about Ehud Olmert, “you have no moral and public mandate to make fateful decisions for the State of Israel.”

Although he made these comments as a political rival, Netanyahu’s declaration, as a matter of principle, reflected a proper set of norms. It even provided an ethical guidepost spelling out how a prime minister under suspicion and investigation – in several cases at the same time – should conduct himself. Now Netanyahu’s turn has come to do what he has demanded of others.

Netanyahu has been claiming that “there is nothing” regarding the suspicions against him, and that the investigations are a plot by the left and the media. (And in his view, and he’s correct here, these two entities are one and the same.) In fact, because he will be proved right, if Netanyahu voluntarily steps down before the police and attorney general announce that “there is nothing,” he will only strengthen his claims.

Such a move would prove to the people – and this time most resolutely – that the left really is persecuting him. And the media, in the service of his enemies, is leading this pursuit. This is how he can return to power surrounded by wall-to-wall waves of popularity and support. And no less important politically: many voters from the parties that led the “witch hunt” against him could well vote for Likud and guarantee this party’s rule for years.

In any case, given the moral-public-political norms that have proliferated in Israel, a call for Netanyahu to step down is worse than naive. Netanyahu, as a person who doesn’t say what’s in his heart, will not give up power. What the Likud establishment thinks about this was proved this week at the rally at the Tel Aviv Fairgrounds. His supporters are right about one thing: during the days of his predecessors, Olmert and Ariel Sharon, precedents were set in which prime ministers suspected of crimes hung on to the horns of power.

Unlike today – after all, we’re talking about Netanyahu – the decent and progressive circles (in their own eyes) including the leading media outlets (except for Haaretz and journalists Yoav Yitzhak and Raviv Drucker) backed Olmert – and before him Sharon.

“It’s political persecution,” said a friend of Olmert’s, fuming. “You don’t fire a prime minister just because of a police investigation.” And what do we get instead? “You don’t fire a prime minister just because of a police investigation and newspaper headlines,” scream Netanyahu’s cronies when the wheel has turned.

Netanyahu also said about Olmert, and he certainly didn’t suspect the innocent: “There exists a real suspicion that he will make decisions based on his personal interests of political survival, not based on national interest.” To survive politically, can Netanyahu do what he ascribed to Olmert? Absolutely; we can already see signs of it. The statement that the death penalty should be imposed on terrorist murderers is one of them.

It’s reasonable to assume that the more the investigations advance, the more Netanyahu will move to the right. Unlike Sharon and Olmert, for Netanyahu a turn to the left is blocked by impassable obstacles. The hatred for him on the left is as deep as Hades, and this camp – even if Netanyahu divides Jerusalem and evacuates all of Judea and Samaria – will never treat him with kid gloves.

In addition, the attorney general’s office has changed too. Avichai Mendelblit isn’t Menachem Mazuz, who “let Sharon off the hook.” For Mazuz, who never dared (or never wanted to) put a serving prime minister on trial, non-legal considerations overrode his legal obligations and loyalties. The presumption is that Mendelblit will “show no partiality” and not be intimidated by the concealed messages raised in Netanyahu’s speech to the Likud central committee, in the same way he hasn’t bent to the pressure the crowds are putting on him in the weekly protests near his home.