It's time to pardon Netanyahu - opinion

There is no good outcome for Israel in Netanyahu's trial because a huge percentage of Israeli public will lose faith in the system no matter the outcome.

 WILL HE keep smiling? Former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu arrives for a court hearing last week. (photo credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)
WILL HE keep smiling? Former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu arrives for a court hearing last week.
(photo credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)

The Yom Kippur War in 1973 was Israel’s bloodiest battle, and still today, the nation’s greatest military debacle. There were 2,656 soldiers killed during the fighting, and the war left Israel reeling in trauma just six years after the miraculous Six Day War.

The years immediately after the Yom Kippur War saw Israel’s defense spending jump exponentially: by the mid-1970s, the defense budget was over 30% of the national GDP. In 2020, it was 5%.

It was necessary back then. The IDF was caught unprepared for the war with Egypt and Syria, and it needed to reform and organize for the challenges ahead.

That is exactly what it did, due to the Yom Kippur War, which has since turned into something of a catchphrase for other state or government failures. The Carmel Fire disaster in 2010 was the Yom Kippur of Israel’s Fire and Rescue Service; the Lag Ba’omer Meron disaster last year was the Yom Kippur of the police; the Bus 300 Affair was the Yom Kippur of the Shin Bet; and so on.

After each incident, change was fast and significant. After the Carmel Fire, the government completely revamped the Fire and Rescue Service and built a squadron of firefighting airplanes. After the Bus 300 affair, the Shin Bet regulated its interrogation procedures culminating with the passing in 2002 of special Knesset legislation. After the Meron disaster last year, the state renovated the ancient religious site, the police limited the number of attendees, and the country stopped pretending that everything was just going to be all right.

Former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu at his trial hearing, May 11, 2022.  (credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)Former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu at his trial hearing, May 11, 2022. (credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)

What is happening at the Jerusalem District Court and the trial of former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu could end up becoming the Yom Kippur of Israel’s criminal justice system. Based on this past week, the chance of that happening might actually be high.

On Sunday, the prosecution asked the court – in a stunning and highly unusual reversal – for permission to amend its indictment. The basis for this request was Netanyahu’s attorneys’ success in proving – through a mix of GPS data and Prime Minister’s Office security records – that it was impossible for Netanyahu to have met with the state’s witness Shlomo Filber on the date the prosecution initially claimed.

While it might just seem like a mistake of a date, this is no small matter. The alleged meeting was the prosecution’s “smoking gun” in Case 4000, the Bezeq-Walla Affair. It is the meeting where the prosecution claims Netanyahu gave Filber, then director-general of the Communications Ministry, the order to give Bezeq owner Shaul Elovitch whatever he wanted and to essentially enable the bribery scheme to move ahead.

If there was no meeting, there might be no bribery, and if there is no bribery, there is no case against Netanyahu. If the date was wrong, the defense claimed in court, who knows what else might be wrong in the case. As Netanyahu himself said this week: “This is what is called, ‘in your face’,” using the American term to stick it to the prosecution.

It is a good question, but it might be one worth sparing this nation from finding out.

There is no good outcome for Israel’s criminal justice system in this trial. If Netanyahu is found guilty, his followers will continue to stand by him. When he said, “There will be nothing because there is nothing,” they agreed. They will now claim – as he has since the police investigation began – that the case was rigged to begin with, and that the three judges who are hearing the case never realistically could have let him off since they knew that if they did, they would effectively be bringing down the entire judicial system with them.

On the other hand, if Netanyahu is found innocent and acquitted of the charges brought against him, then it won’t just be his followers who will completely lose faith and trust in the Israeli judicial system. Half of Israel does not trust the courts already. When you look deeper into the stats, only 25% of Israelis say they have high confidence in the court. Only 25%.

Now imagine what will happen if Netanyahu is acquitted. Trust will tank completely, and when that happens, the road to anarchy will have been paved. Israel will find itself in a constitutional and legal crisis never seen before. With no trust in courts, there will be little trust in the rule of law. The basic democratic fabric will quickly unravel.

Ironically, there are some Netanyahu supporters who want this to happen. They want the trial to go until the end so they can see their leader be acquitted and can finally have their go at Israel’s judicial system long seen as an ivory tower filled with elites disconnected from the masses.

Just listen to some of the members of Netanyahu’s bloc in the Knesset. They openly declare their desire to take a bulldozer and demolish the Supreme Court.

All of this leads to one solution that might not appear to be the best, but would actually give Israel the reset that it needs: a presidential pardon for Netanyahu. 

It would be a pardon not given after he is convicted but already now. It would allow the former prime minister to retire with dignity and respect, and at the same time spare the country the Yom Kippur that it does not need.

The reason this might be a good solution is that everyone is against it. 

The pro-Bibi camp does not want Netanyahu to be denied the opportunity to return to the Knesset, a necessary condition for a pardon now. They also want to see him win this trial and pave the way for a judicial revolution. On the other side, the anti-Bibi camp doesn’t want a pardon – or even a plea bargain – because they want to see Netanyahu sent to jail. Nothing less will make that camp happy.

Sometimes though, the best ideas are the ones that all sides of the political spectrum are against. I am not the first to raise the prospect of a presidential pardon nor will I be the last. But there might be an opportunity right now that would solve Israel’s political predicament as well.

A pardon of Netanyahu that sees him leave the Knesset will allow someone else to take over Likud. The moment that happens, a new government will be formed in Israel and the country will be spared another election, one that most people feel is in the cards as long as the Bennett-Lapid government remains without a clear parliamentary majority and must continue to rely on Arab parties to pass legislation. That might work once or twice but it is not sustainable long-term.

Will Netanyahu even accept a pardon right now that would see him leave the Knesset? For Israel’s sake, it is an idea worth pursuing, one that should not be rejected outright.

***

What happened last Friday, when members of the Israel Police beat the pallbearers of Shireen Abu Akleh’s casket during her funeral procession in east Jerusalem, was a disgrace and stain on Israel and its government.

It was a disgrace because that is not how Israeli policemen should behave during a funeral, especially one that it knows is being broadcast around the world. It was a stain on the government because it raises questions of where were the decision-makers, and what were they so busy doing last Friday that no one thought to give the police an order to stay away from the funeral.

It was also slightly comical. Just a day earlier, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett praised himself on social media for revamping Israel’s public diplomacy apparatus. “In the past year, we established a Public Diplomacy Directorate and today we saw how important this is,” the prime minister tweeted, after Israel’s narrative that sufficient proof was not available to blame IDF soldiers for Abu Akleh’s death was adopted by several international media outlets. “We will not abandon this arena.”

That was on Wednesday. By Friday, whatever goodwill Israel might have won in the media went straight out the window, due to a mixture of stupidity and bad policing – as seen way too often in this country, the police view every problem as if it is a nail, with the only viable solution to behave like a hammer.

That no one realized they needed to prepare for the funeral and think ahead of time about what to do is national governmental negligence. Where was the PMO? Where was the Foreign Ministry? Where was the IDF Spokesman’s Office or the Public Security Ministry? Where was the Public Diplomacy Directorate that Bennett claimed he was so proud of?

It should have been obvious that clashes at the funeral could and likely would happen. How come no one thought to plan for it?

It’s not just negligence, but also a misunderstanding of the challenges Israel faces. Wars and maintaining security need to be fought today on three different fronts: the battlefield where the soldiers are; the home front where the rockets land or the terrorist attack takes place; and the public diplomacy front, fighting the narrative battle in the media and at international forums like the United Nations.

Family and friends carry the coffin of Al Jazeera reporter Shireen Abu Akleh, who was killed during an Israeli raid in Jenin, during her funeral in Jerusalem, May 13, 2022.  (credit: REUTERS/AMMAR AWAD)Family and friends carry the coffin of Al Jazeera reporter Shireen Abu Akleh, who was killed during an Israeli raid in Jenin, during her funeral in Jerusalem, May 13, 2022. (credit: REUTERS/AMMAR AWAD)

When applying this model to the Abu Akleh killing, it works like this: There was Jenin, where she was killed and where the IDF was operating against Islamic Jihad terrorist suspects; there was the home front in Elad, where the attack had taken place days earlier by terrorists who had come from the Jenin area; and there was the public diplomacy front, where spectacle of a journalist’s funeral played out together with horrific mismanagement by the police.

Only when this paradigm is understood will Israel be able to effectively respond, because only then will it plan every operation with the public diplomatic fallout in mind. 

When the police prepare in the future for a funeral like Abu Akleh’s, they will take into consideration not only the operational challenges of containing crowds and preventing violence but also the public diplomacy consequences of whatever they do.

This is not the situation today. Bennett needs to make that change. Then he will have something to genuinely brag about.