At a recent security cabinet meeting, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his ministers were dealing with highly sensitive security information regarding Syria, Hezbollah and Iran.
Top security officials were briefing ministers entrusted with making fateful decisions about prospective, urgent military maneuvers.
Into the room walks an adviser to Netanyahu, to deliver a note. Netanyahu excuses himself from the room and goes to call his lawyers about how to respond to the latest media reports about his criminal investigations, which presumably came from police leaks.
Sources close to Netanyahu told The Jerusalem Post
that the above scenario has become a frequent occurrence and that the prime minister was sick and tired of it.
“It’s happened dozens of times,” a source close to the prime minister said. “At least once a week, he’s had to leave important meetings when he received such a note.”
The reverse has also happened.
On March 6, Netanyahu was being questioned by police at his Jerusalem residence, when an adviser walked in with a note that US President Donald Trump was on the phone and needed to speak to him urgently about Iran.
While one aide said afterward that Netanyahu had briefly excused himself to talk to the president, the statement later released by Netanyahu’s office indicated that – as usual with Trump – the conversation was anything but brief.
“The two leaders spoke at length about the dangers posed by the nuclear deal with Iran and the need to work together to counter those dangers,” the statement said.
With those two frustrating scenarios in mind, it is no wonder that during the Knesset’s extended summer and holiday recess, Netanyahu fell head over heels in love with the so-called “French law,” in what his advisers described as amour, the kind of romance only the French can comprehend.
The bill based on the French law proposed by Likud MK David Amsalem would have made it illegal for a sitting prime minister to be investigated for most crimes. While Netanyahu’s current probes would be grandfathered in, a new criminal investigation of a prime minister would not be able to be opened, unless it was for security-related crimes, violence, drugs, sexual violations or a crime that would cause significant harm to Israel’s security or economy if not investigated immediately.
Netanyahu thought he would be able to pass the controversial legislation, because Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked (Bayit Yehudi) backed the bill, the prime minister’s coalition partners are determined to keep their jobs, and coalition chairman David Bitan (Likud) was throwing his full weight behind it.
Bitan has been coming through time and time again for Netanyahu. He organized rallies for him on short notice, humiliated ministers into backing him on the airwaves, and has not had a serious problem passing the prime minister’s agenda in parliament. Bitan has gained a reputation in the Prime Minister’s Office as a “bulldozer” who cannot be stopped.
But Netanyahu underestimated the backlash against the bill. Usually quiet Attorney-General Avichai Mandelblit spoke out against it with strong language, Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon found himself back in his past role as the defender of the rule of law, and even Shaked could not deliver her entire faction to back the bill.
By Monday night, the French law was declared mort (dead in French). When a different bill was proposed that would prevent the police from publishing their recommendations to the attorney- general about whether to indict public figures, there were those who questioned whether proposing the first measure was intended all along just to soften opposition to the second.
The second bill, which is expected to come to a vote of the Ministerial Committee on Legislation on November 5, would ease pressure on Netanyahu’s coalition partners, who fear that a harsh police case leaked to the press could force them to demand Netanyahu’s ouster. The police recommendation to indict Netanyahu is still expected by as early as December, and the last thing the coalition partners want is an immediate election.
While tough to enforce, passing the anti-police recommendation bill could make it easier for Netanyahu’s government to last until the official date for the next election, Tuesday, November 5, 2019. Mandelblit is reportedly no less opposed to that legislation, but unlike the French law, he would not declare it an illegal nonstarter.
Nevertheless, both Netanyahu’s associates and Bitan himself said the prime minister preferred the French law because it could have a long-term impact on enabling a prime minister to function. Bitan vowed to resurrect the bill next month and continue to try to pass it, though Netanyahu’s associates said Bitan was “once again being more Bibi than Bibi” in threatening to move up national elections over the legislation.
Bitan was not aware of the main difference between the bill and the actual French law, which grants immunity from prosecution only to the president, not the prime minister.
After President Reuven Rivlin’s speech at the opening session of the Knesset on Monday in which he slammed the government’s attempts to undermine institutions such as the courts, the IDF and the media, chances are Bitan would not back the French version of the French law.
“He [Rivlin] hasn’t been on our side for a while,” Bitan told reporters at the Knesset.
Culture and Sport Minister Miri Regev and Sara Netanyahu’s BFF, Nava Boker, chimed in with their own criticism of the president. But Netanyahu and his associates did not say a word against Rivlin.
Netanyahu instructed his staff not to criticize Rivlin, despite entreaties from the press, Likud social media networks, and advisers to the prime minister, begging for a response. His associates said he did not like Rivlin’s speech, but he was not about to set out to prove the president’s point by attacking him. Speaking on Wednesday night, Netanyahu’s associates said the prime minister would seek to further prove himself “statesmanlike” (Rivlin’s word) in future remarks.
With all his private criticism for Rivlin, Netanyahu’s relationship with him is better than he had during his first term with then-president Ezer Weizman, who died in 2005. Weizman, who was in his 70s, liked lecturing the neophyte prime minister. Netanyahu turned 68 on Saturday, but was seen as a young whippersnapper by Weizman back then.
Relations with the late president Shimon Peres were very cordial for the most part. But they disagreed completely on key issues, and Peres dropped a bombshell in an August 24, 2014, conversation with then-Jerusalem Post
editor in- chief Steve Linde and Managing Editor David Brinn, by saying that he had stopped Netanyahu from bombing Iran.
Rivlin may deeply dislike Netanyahu, but he makes a point of defending him constantly to visiting heads of state and other foreign leaders. Even when he is most upset at the prime minister’s behavior, he tells them that Netanyahu is the ultimate Israeli patriot and explains how his coalition holds him back from taking steps on diplomatic issues that he would have otherwise taken.
Rivlin’s speech this week was not his first to criticize Netanyahu at the Knesset. People forget that his remarks at last fall’s opening session was also seen as political, due to statements he made against shutting down public broadcasting.
But just like this week, Netanyahu and Rivlin later sat together at the annual memorial ceremony for former tourism minister Rehavam Ze’evi at Mount Herzl and moved on to a business-as-usual footing.
Rivlin’s term ends in June 2021. His job is safe.
Only Netanyahu’s fate remains in the hands of the attorney-general.
And no law can be passed to change that.