The Prime Minister Is Unfit to Be President

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Benjamin Netanyahu and President Reuven Rivlin in 2014 at the Knesset.

Thursday is admittedly April 1, but this is not a practical joke: In the effort to find an exit from the political dead end in which the state has been trapped for about two years, the idea of electing Benjamin Netanyahu as president in place of Reuven Rivlin, whose seven-year term ends in July, has once again been raised. This serious joke at the public’s expense is being termed the “presidential plan.”

It is a crazy idea that must be aborted. After all, Netanyahu himself is the bottleneck in the political system. The political impasse is nothing but the system’s response to a constitutional malfunction that allows a criminal defendant to serve as prime minister. Only in a country that has gone off the rails would it be possible to propose freeing ourselves from the grip of a criminal defendant serving as prime minister by electing him president.

A criminal defendant belongs in the dock, not in the presidency. And if Netanyahu is found guilty of the crimes with which he is charged, he belongs in jail. Is it reasonable to turn the President’s Residence into a shelter for escaped criminals?

The idea is to let Netanyahu benefit from the procedural immunity conferred by the Basic Law on the President of the State. This law bars the president from being put on trial during his term of office, even for crimes that were investigated before his term began. But from a legal standpoint, it’s not at all clear that the law can be interpreted as granting immunity even to someone who is already in the midst of a criminal trial, as Netanyahu is. He has already been indicted and his trial has already begun, whereas the language of the law seems to provide only immunity from indictment while in office.

These circumstances are unprecedented in Israel’s history. If this shameful plan moves forward, the courts will naturally be compelled to rule on the issue. But even if flexible judges are found who will interpret the law so that it applies to Netanyahu, they won’t be able to remove the moral stain of this abomination. There’s a limit to how far it’s possible to go in interpreting the law to continue containing Netanyahu’s criminal problems.

What message is the state sending to its citizens when it puts a man charged with bribery at its head? What message is Israel sending to the rest of the world when it elects a criminal defendant as its citizen No. 1, the person who will represent it overseas?

The desire to free the political system of the burden of a criminal defendant must not provide a tailwind for terrible ideas whose costs are untenable. If a criminal defendant isn’t fit to be prime minister, then he’s all the more unfit to be the head of state. Netanyahu must go – but to court, not to the President’s Residence.