Netanyahu’s immunity bill is unpalatable

Bibi’s claim of exculpation – “The citizens of Israel knew my situation, and they elected me” – is a sorry attempt to avoid resigning or fighting the charges while in office.

By DANIEL J. SAMET
May 24, 2019 19:23
4 minute read.
WILL THEY laugh again in a few weeks? Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Avigdor Liberman

WILL THEY laugh again in a few weeks? Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Yisrael Beytenu chairman Avigdor Liberman. (photo credit: REUTERS)

 
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Though his supporters call him “king of Israel,” the “prince” might be a more suitable moniker for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Per recent reports, Netanyahu – for sure a Machiavellian character – intends to shield himself from prosecution while in office through his immunity bill. Doing so would be a tremendous setback for Israeli democracy.

Earlier this year, Attorney-General Avichai Mandelblit revealed his intention to indict Netanyahu on three counts of corruption involving gifts from businessmen quid pro quo agreements for favorable media coverage. For a man who has dismissed these charges as a “house of cards,” Bibi seems desperate to avoid mounting any sort of legal defense. Instead, he’s spent his time telling fellow Likud politicians how to market the immunity bill to the public. His reasoning holds that he’ll wait to deal with the case until out of office because indicting a sitting prime minister is ostensibly “not good for the country.”

Israel needs to think about what best serves the national interest: charging a sitting head of government or granting him immunity. This legislation would not look out of place in a banana republic. For the good of separation of powers, constitutionalism and the rule of law, Israel should say no to the bill.

Bibi’s claim of exculpation – “The citizens of Israel knew my situation, and they elected me” – is a sorry attempt to avoid resigning or fighting the charges while in office. Israel would be best suited if Netanyahu chose one of those options and not immunity. Given Likud’s popularity and the dissipation of the center-left, he could conceivably be prime minister for many years to come.

The immunity bill and frozen indictment would blight his entire government. The preoccupation with the case that would inevitably ensue would prevent Netanyahu from serving effectively. Just as Ehud Barak said as prime minister Ehud Olmert faced an indictment on corruption, “I do not think the prime minister can simultaneously manage the government, and handle his personal issues.” The same logic should apply to Bibi.

His own affirmation that “no one is above the law” following the sentencing of former president Moshe Katsav in 2011, makes his most recent ploy all the more hypocritical. The country has developed resilient democratic institutions that have long rooted out corruption. Olmert was convicted of accepting bribes in 2014 and spent 16 months in prison. Coming before him was Yitzhak Rabin, who resigned in 1977 over illegal ownership of a foreign bank account. One would expect that Netanyahu be held to the same standard.


THE FACTS of the case could very well vindicate Netanyahu. Yet proper constitutional avenues, not a carte blanche from the Knesset, should decide the prime minister’s fate. 

Bibi has vowed that the allegations against him are baseless, and he is entitled to the presumption of innocence owed to him by a common-law system. Just as pressing, however, is the need to hold all individuals to the same legal standard.


Making Netanyahu exempt from prosecution would set a dangerous precedent. Israeli society is remarkably egalitarian (politicians go by diminutive nicknames), but this would be a remarkably inegalitarian measure. Though Netanyahu deserves credit for his country’s successes – robust economic growth, a favorable security situation and diplomatic victories – they do not give him full discretionary power. This legislation would erode the rule of law, diminish the power of the courts and set a poor example for the rest of the country.

Bibi probably feels that no one else can lead Israel toward continued prosperity. He may think that he’s the only man for the job, but the political system will find a capable replacement if he goes. The wrong solution is to grant impunity to the most powerful person in the country.

As the most likely justification for this bill is to keep a political ally in office, it would be among the most undemocratic measures Israel has taken recently. Left-wing NGOs fear government reprisals, while last year’s controversial Nation-State Law affronted minorities. The immunity bill is up there with the Nation-State Law. Israel would do well to avoid drifting farther toward illiberalism.

Israel is no Turkey or Egypt, where authoritarian rule grows by the day. But the immunity bill would undoubtedly mar a storied democracy whose political process, free media and independent judiciary set it apart from its neighbors. The Knesset should uphold this tradition by rejecting the immunity bill. If it passes, it’s almost certain to end up in the courts. 

What drives the bill is Netanyahu’s resolve to stay in power. It’s unclear how the public will respond to the legislation. Yet Bibi can count on at least one supporter in Machiavelli, who must be applauding his Israeli prince from the grave.

The writer is program assistant for Middle East programs at the Atlantic Council. The views expressed here are his own.

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