The picture of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the entrance to the Jerusalem District Court just before his trial began, with his loyal ministers, their mouths covered with masks, standing in the background as he assailed the law enforcement system like any garden-variety criminal, will be etched forever in the nation’s memory.
Even judged by his own low moral standard, Netanyahu reached a new nadir on Sunday and once again proved that a criminal defendant cannot serve as prime minister. And that’s especially true of Netanyahu, for whom incitement is second nature.
Netanyahu repeated the ludicrous blood libel that he and his loyalists have been feeding the public: “People in the police and prosecution got together with left-wing journalists to fabricate delusional cases against me.” That, without a jot of responsibility, echoing the biblical Samson’s “let me die with the Philistines,” is how Netanyahu attacked the heads of the law enforcement system who were involved in putting him on trial – former Police Commissioner Roni Alsheich, former State Prosecutor Shai Nitzan and Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit. Of the latter, he asked maliciously, “Does he have something to hide?”
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On Sunday, it became definitively clear that a defendant devoid of restraints is serving as prime minister and undermining the foundations of the state for which he is responsible. Around him stand ministers and Knesset members who have mobilized totally for this destructive battle and are vying among themselves over who will stand closer to the man charged with corruption: Public Security Minister Amir Ohana, Minister for Cabinet-Knesset Liaison David Amsalem, Education Minister Yoav Gallant, Transportation Minister Miri Regev and even two ministers considered more statesmanlike, Finance Minister Yisrael Katz and Minister Without Portfolio Tzachi Hanegbi.
Granted, they didn’t carry signs like the demonstrators gathered in the street nearby – signs bearing slogans like “murderers of democracy” and “Mendelblit, you’re guilty.” But they sent the exact same message by standing staunchly at Netanyahu’s side, eyes looking straight at the camera and mouths covered.
With the opening of the prime minister’s trial on Sunday, Israel entered the twilight zone of democracy. The country is trapped in an unprecedented situation. Not only is its prime minister a criminal defendant who is managing the country and his trial simultaneously, but Netanyahu in his role as defendant is presiding over a wild, unbridled public assault on the law enforcement and justice systems for which he is responsible. How is the country supposed to function in this situation?
Kahol Lavan chairman Benny Gantz responded to Netanyahu’s nightmarish speech by saying, “Even the prime minister has the right to be presumed innocent. I’m certain the justice system will give him a fair trial.” This is a weak, meaningless response that tries unsuccessfully to cover the nakedness of his decision to form a government with a criminal defendant and thereby enable a man with no restraints to take an entire country hostage.
The above article is Haaretz’s lead editorial, as published in the Hebrew and English newspapers in Israel.