President Rivlin, Act Now – Before It's Too Late

Ehud Barak
Ehud Barak
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Benjamin Netanyahu gives a statement to the press after meeting with U.S. Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin in Jerusalem, January 7, 2021.
Ehud Barak
Ehud Barak

President Reuven Rivlin, citizen number one, will complete his well-served term this summer. He observed that Israel was divided into tribes, so he used his standing to heal the rifts. In his actions, Rivlin combined love of the Land of Israel and the dream of its wholeness with a humane liberalism respectful of all human dignity and of the values of equality. He did not shy away from making the right symbolic moves, even when they were controversial.

Benjamin Netanyahu did all he could to prevent Rivlin from being elected president, but Rivlin has refrained from any public settling of scores, and generally has not interfered in politics. One memorable exception was after the second round of elections, when he proposed his own road map when neither side was able to form a government. I don’t know what Rivlin thinks now of this experiment. In my humble opinion, it was a failure, because Netanyahu turned the attempt to bridge the divide and foster reconciliation into a tool to crush Benny Gantz and to intensify his fight against the Knesset and the justice system.

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The moment of truth for our future is approaching. What we saw the other day on the steps of the Capitol and inside it is a warning sign. Netanyahu’s readiness to break every rule and law is obvious, and reached a peak at the start of his trial, with that scene in the courthouse that could have come right out of a gangster movie. And in fact, the prosecutor in his trial is already under guard day and night, just like the prosecutors in the trials of organized crime bosses, and for the same reasons.

The trial has begun, and so a new situation is before us. I call on Rivlin: Mr. President, this is the time to act. Proclaim publicly and unequivocally that Israel arose through sweat and blood out of the ashes of the Holocaust in order to be a model society, in the spirit of the Declaration of Independence and the legacy of the Jewish prophets. Therefore, you as president will not lend a hand to the unbelievable situation of entrusting someone who is on trial for bribery, fraud and breach of trust with the task of forming the new government in Israel. It is within your authority. Refraining from acting could leave an indelible stain on your legacy and on all of us. Such a statement must be made very soon, before the party slates are presented on February 4, so that those compiling the lists will take it into consideration and that all Israelis will be aware of it when they go to the polls.

I’m familiar with all of the counterarguments. First of all, there should be no hiding behind the claim there is nothing in the law to prevent a criminal defendant from serving as prime minister; the legislature never conceived of such a possibility. Similarly, there is no instruction in the law preventing the general shareholders of a major bank from reelecting a chairman of the board who is on trial for embezzling bank funds. However, if such a prospect arose, the Bank of Israel would certainly announce in advance that no such election would be approved. Nor does the law prohibit electing a president who is on trial for running a crime organization. Yet, it is reasonable to assume the Supreme Court would bar even the prospect of such an appointment at the nomination stage, since such a candidacy would leave a mark of disgrace on the institution of the presidency.

Second, it is true the trial is far from over and Netanyahu is entitled to the presumption of innocence. Every Israeli is entitled to hope he is ultimately acquitted. If he is acquitted, or convicted of an offense that does not entail moral turpitude, Netanyahu could run for prime minister after serving his sentence and be elected again. But now? Can’t we see what it says about Israel and about all of us?

Given Netanyahu’s path of personal, political and moral decline, his election victory could lead to passage of a “French Law” and a base override clause, to grave erosion of the Supreme Court’s independence and to the further decimation of the Knesset’s standing. The fortress of democracy is in real and imminent danger. No one can claim that the writing wasn’t on the wall.

Mr President, it’s in your hands. Please, act before it’s too late!

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