No Netanyahu, a Clerk Doesn’t Decide on the Fate of Israel’s Democracy

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Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit, left, and State Prosecutor Amit Aisman.
Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit, left, and State Prosecutor Amit Aisman.Credit: Emil Salman

A. is a functionary at the Justice Ministry. His daily routine is as follows: He gets up in the morning, brushes his teeth, has some coffee, wastes an hour in traffic, arrives at the office and begins his paperwork.

At 10 A.M. he’s brought a cup of tea and some cut vegetables. At 11 he has a staff meeting, at 12 a meeting with another functionary, and at 1 P.M. he ... ousts the prime minister and breaks for lunch.

According to the people opposing the bill that would ban a criminal defendant from forming a government, this is how you bring down a prime minister. It starts by belittling the attorney general's status as chief prosecutor as nothing but a “clerk.” It continues with the lie that on the shoulders of this one person the entire construct of Israeli democracy rests.

It’s as if there were no process of filing an indictment involving scores of police investigators, prosecutors, expert witnesses and advisers who study documents, interview witnesses, debate the pros and cons, and hold hearings, all the time hesitating about whether to move forward and/or amend the charges.

It’s true that only one person signs the final document, but there’s a big gap between the false claim that a criminal case is opened at the whim of one official and the reality of the long, scrupulous process by which indictments are filed.

The “clerk” pejorative is just the latest lie by Netanyahu apologists who have long dealt in lies and manipulation. When the investigation into Benjamin Netanyahu got underway in 2016, his allies were quick to declare it nothing but a probe. They dismissed its conclusions as just a police recommendation that would fail the evidentiary test of a pre-indictment hearing.

The attorney general, they said, hadn’t decided on anything. When the process ended and the attorney general indeed filed an indictment, they wrote him off as nothing but a government clerk.

What will they say when the court reaches its verdict? That those are just judges? That it’s only a district court? That you can’t let a panel of three judges decide the fate of a democracy? When will the time come when they accept the rules of the game?

Even the claim that the legislation is a “personal law” is stretched to unreasonable limits. They say that it’s Netanyahu who will be harmed by the law.

But it was Netanyahu who created the situation requiring the law. He was the prime minister under investigation and facing trial who encouraged his allies to advance a personal bill like the so-called French Law that would prevent a sitting prime minister from being prosecuted.

He was the one who told his ministers to show up at his trial to show their support, who dragged the country through four straight election campaigns and tried to extricate himself from his legal troubles by violating the rotation agreement for prime minister with Benny Gantz and failing to submit a state budget.

His conduct convinced no less than three other party leaders on the right – Naftali Bennett, Avigdor Lieberman and Gideon Sa’ar – to join together in an eclectic and contradictory coalition to free Israel from the mire of Netanyahu’s legal problems. It would be naive to say they introduced the bill with only the purest of motives.

But more than indictments, what bothered Bennett, Gantz and Lieberman were the side effects – the deceit and personality cult that Netanyahu employed to put himself ahead of the country’s interests.

Netanyahu, it should be remembered, supported such a bill more than a decade ago when it was aimed at Ehud Olmert. Back then, it was Netanyahu who warned that “there is a real, not unfounded fear that he will make decisions based on his own interests of political survival rather than the national interest.” So he urged Olmert to step down as prime minister when he was indicted.

It would have been better if Sa’ar’s bill had been submitted at a different time, not when Netanyahu is the Likud party’s candidate for prime minister. But it would have been even better if Netanyahu withdrew his candidacy and managed his trial as a private citizen. At the end of the process, it would be clear to everyone whether he could return to public life.

That’s actually the most elegant way to prevent a “clerk” from deciding. If you don’t want a clerk deciding, then you decide. Do the right thing for the national interest.

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