These two images to a large extent tell the modern story of Benjamin Netanyahu.
There he is on the top photo in September 2020, standing at the White House after signing the Abraham Accords with president Donald Trump and the foreign ministers of the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain.
Then there is the photo below from May that same year, showing Netanyahu at the entrance to the Jerusalem District Court standing at a podium with the national emblem, delivering a vicious attack against the judicial system moments before his bribery and fraud trial were to begin. Behind him stand the silent and masked members of Likud, many of them cabinet ministers.
In Washington we saw the great statesmen, the man who brought peace to the Middle East. At the courthouse we saw the man who had made it his goal to undermine and weaken the criminal justice system, a man who could see nothing but his own political survival.
There are of course other photos that tell the Netanyahu story. There was the time he spoke at Zion Square, at a rally in 1995 that was later singled out for contributing to the incitement that led to Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination. There was his speech before Congress in 2015, when he stood against a sitting US president to stop the Iran nuclear accord that in his eyes had the potential to develop into an existential threat.
But those two photos above illustrate – more than others, in my view – the Netanyahu contradiction. In Washington we could see the man and his amazing skills and accomplishments, while in Jerusalem we witnessed someone who had lost touch with what was morally or ethically right.
When former Supreme Court chief justice Aharon Barak said this week that he decided to try to help Netanyahu secure a plea deal because he is a great defender of the court, he was gravely wrong.
Netanyahu was a defender of the courts, but that ended when he himself came under investigation. Then he became the man who has possibly caused the Israeli judicial system the greatest damage in the country’s short history.
What makes this all the more severe is that Netanyahu knew exactly what he was doing.
He can’t be excused for not understanding what he was doing or for getting carried away. He is a man of incredible intellectual depth and a strategic thinker. He knew what damage his rhetoric and actions would cause. But he moved ahead and used his popularity to undermine Israel’s democracy and judiciary all for the purpose of evading justice. He believed that he could outrun the law.
But he couldn’t, and that is what he learned this week. Even if the plea deal falls apart – either because it is too late for Attorney-General Avichai Mandelblit whose term ends in two weeks, or because the prosecution’s minimum doesn’t match Netanyahu’s maximum – there is no longer a way out of this mess unless the trial ends in an acquittal. That appears to be the only way Netanyahu will one day in the coming decade return to the Prime Minister’s Office.
It is safe to assume that if Netanyahu and his lawyers thought he had a chance of winning the trial, they would not be pushing him right now to make a deal. His legal team must be assuming that the chances he ends with a full acquittal are slim to none.
As usual in Israel, the political extremes took the possibility of a plea deal to the edge. There were the “Bibistim,” the supporters who view him as their messiah, who shouted at him not to sign a deal. They want him to fight until the end, not for himself but for them.
These people don’t really care about him. Netanyahu is not their savior; he is their sacrifice. They need him to keep fighting so they can keep fighting as well.
On the other side was the anti-Netanyahu crowd, mostly from the Left, people like former prime minister Ehud Barak who said that by agreeing to negotiate a deal, Mandelblit showed that he is “spineless.” A deal that keeps Netanyahu out of prison, Barak claimed, would be a “disgrace for generations to come.”
This sanctimonious approach does nothing for the State of Israel. It seems to be motivated by a feeling that revenge is needed, and that Netanyahu needs to pay for what he did.
Whether he does or does not is up to the courts and the judicial system, not Barak or some other anti-Netanyahu activist who can’t come to terms with a result that does not see him behind bars.
In the middle are those who argue that the court case needs to be seen until the end so the public can regain its trust in the judicial system. They believe that if there is a deal, the pro-Bibi camp will claim Mandelblit agreed because he knew his case was weak, leading to further mistrust in Israel’s democratic institutions.
Unlike the extremes, this is a valid argument.
On the other hand, let’s think for a moment what three-to-five more years of Netanyahu’s trial will do to Israel. On the chance that a completed trial will convince some people, is it worth putting the country through more years of this division? Will more years of attacks against the police and the courts build trust?
Is that any good? Does that serve Israel’s interests?
Here is what we need to remember. The reason Israel went to four elections in two years was not because of ideological differences that prevented parties from coalescing into a coalition. It had nothing to do with economic policy, the Palestinians or Israel’s foreign policy. It was about one thing and one thing only: could Netanyahu remain in politics or not.
This is the fault line that divides Israel today. It separates people and political parties and it has held up this country for far too long.
A plea deal will not solve all of the country’s problems. The Bibistim will not fade away. They will invent a new false messiah and will continue to argue that Netanyahu is innocent. But the moment he leaves the political stage is the moment that the nation can start to heal.
The Likud will be able to move away from the grips of Netanyahu, and the political system will be able to reset itself and open the way for new partnerships and coalitions.
The public discourse will also eventually be able to change. People will no longer be defined by the question of whether they are “for Bibi” or “against Bibi,” as if that is the litmus test for where someone stands on the Israeli political spectrum and whether they are right- or left-wing.
The constant attacks on the courts, the police and the AG will simmer down. Without a trial, there will no longer be whom to attack every day.
On the other hand, a continued trial, with another few years left, will lead to more fighting, division and political instability. This serves no one’s agenda except those who want to continue to undermine and disrupt Israel’s delicate democratic fabric.
A plea deal has the potential to start a process of national healing. I hope they reach one.