Immunity and the Bibi boom

The gall would be startling if it didn’t illustrate so perfectly the atmosphere in which prime minister has been forced to function while handling affairs of state.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu chats with his party's members in Airport City near Tel Aviv, Israel December 27, 2019. (photo credit: AMIR COHEN/REUTERS)
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu chats with his party's members in Airport City near Tel Aviv, Israel December 27, 2019.
(photo credit: AMIR COHEN/REUTERS)
Prime Minister Benjamin (“Bibi”) Netanyahu’s announcement on Wednesday night that he was submitting a request to the Knesset to grant him immunity from prosecution came as no surprise. During the week leading up to the deadline for his final decision on the matter both the rumor mill and reliable sources reported that he was on the verge of doing so.
Nevertheless, the 10-minute televised speech he delivered from a podium at the Orient Hotel in Jerusalem was riveting. Not only was it better in tone and craftsmanship than many other of his recent statements, but it served as a reminder to anyone distracted by his indictments that his long-standing tenure is due to a lot more than his gift of the gab or clever manipulation of the political system.
He began by highlighting the latest, and in some ways most impressive, cause for a countrywide celebration: the launch of operations at the Leviathan natural-gas reservoir, discovered in 2010 in Israel’s territorial waters.
Addressing the “citizens of Israel,” Netanyahu said, “Today marks... the best decade in Israeli history.”
“Finally,” he pointed out, after a 10-year battle with the naysayers on the Left – who fought tooth-and-nail to demonize and block Leviathan – “we have extracted the gas from the water. Tomorrow, I’m traveling to Greece to advance the installation of the pipeline that will export Israeli gas to Europe, which will infuse hundreds of billions of shekels [into the economy] for the elderly, the children, the hospitals and health system, the schools and education system [and] welfare, for each and every one of you.”
He went on, “I intend to continue to lead Israel for many more years [in the pursuit of] historical achievements... that once we could only dream of and now are actually within reach. Together we will strengthen our economy. We will stop Iran. We will determine our borders. We will enter into a defense pact with the United States. We will forge peace with additional Arab countries. And we will extend sovereignty over our land.”
He punctuated this with a dig at his detractors, “who have nothing to offer other than incitement against me... [and] seem to find it difficult to deal with the fact that we have turned Israel into the world’s eighth most powerful country.”
Only then did he get down to the nitty-gritty that viewers has anticipated and were waiting for.
“Many of you think – because it’s what you’ve been told – that immunity for elected officials is permanent; that it enables [a suspect] never to stand trial. This is simply not true. According to the law, immunity is always temporary, ending with the term of the Knesset that granted it. If the Knesset is incumbent for three months, for example, as is currently the case, the immunity is canceled after three months. According to the law, there is no possibility, for anyone, to avoid standing trial. Thus, when I was asked by Channel 12 [whether I] will try to advance a law or make any other move to prevent [my] being tried in court, I replied, ‘No way.’
“I meant those words then, and I am not retracting them now... I didn’t promote or change any law. I intend to appear in court to smash the unfounded libels against me.”
HE CONTINUED, “The Immunity Law was aimed at protecting elected officials from manufactured cases [and] politically motivated indictments [that undermine] the will of the people, not the will of bureaucrats.”
To reinforce this assertion, Netanyahu quoted a 2005 interview with then-speaker of the Knesset Reuven Rivlin, who defended the amendment of the 1951 MK Immunity Law on the grounds that elected officials are vulnerable to the whim of the state attorney or investigators who might decide to target and neutralize him for political reasons.
“Such things have happened in Israel,” Rivlin, now president, said at the time. “And there is a strong suspicion that they were done to keep certain people from serving in ministerial roles.”
It is interesting that Netanyahu did not mention the appalling comment Rivlin made this week on that very topic.
At the Calcalist conference in Tel Aviv on Tuesday, the Israeli president actually cast aspersions on the public’s good judgment. Discussing Netanyahu’s predicament and the so-called conflict “between the law and morality, between values and the will of the people – issues that must be considered carefully,” he pontificated, “ultimately, democracy is the will of the people. But the people need to want the right thing.”
The right thing? What is that, exactly? And who is Rivlin to dictate it? Should Israeli voters consult with him and other of Netanyahu’s foes before heading to the ballot box?
The gall would be startling if it didn’t illustrate so perfectly the atmosphere in which prime minister has been forced to function while handling affairs of state.
Still, Netanyahu opted to omit Rivlin’s egregious remark, preferring instead to praise the justice of one he’d uttered in the past, with as much conviction and a lot less arrogance.
“Unfortunately, this [targeting of and attempt to neutralize me for political reasons] is what’s happening here,” Netanyahu said. “The manufacturing of cases; selective law-enforcement; the extortion of state’s witnesses and impeachment of [others]; a torrent of systematic criminal leaks; nightly brain-washing of the public... and the holding of what is in effect a kangaroo court.
“Most astonishing is the invention of a new charge that has never existed in human history: receiving positive [media] coverage. Do you hear that? Don’t laugh... I, Benjamin Netanyahu, am charged with receiving positive coverage in the media!”
Indeed, it would be funny if it weren’t so sad.
THE NEXT item on Netanyahu’s agenda was the blatant double standard that has been applied to any testimony or emerging facts which bolster his innocence. While “systematic criminal leaks” from state’s witnesses not only are tolerated but “put in the spotlight,” any material that might exonerate Netanyahu or paint him in a more favorable light remains in the pitch dark, under air-tight gag orders. These, he said, should be removed so that the public can be privy to the “whole truth.”
He also highlighted the different treatment received by those “on the right side of the media and the Left” – such as Blue and White chairman Benny Gantz and his sidekick, Yair Lapid – whose own “serious violations of the law” have elicited barely a yawn. They certainly didn’t spark investigations or indictments.
But then, running on the “anybody but Bibi” ticket means never having to request immunity. Even for the crime of stupidity.
This is lucky for Gantz, whose response to Netanyahu’s announcement was idiotic, at best. At worst, it reeked of petulance; revealed a lack of familiarity with the Immunity Law; and suggested that he hadn’t listened to or understood Netanyahu’s speech.
“Netanyahu knows he’s guilty,” Gantz huffed. “A person who believes he’s innocent is not afraid to stand trial. Either we’ll have a radical immunity government or a unified national one.... Immunity is not the bedrock of democracy; it is a detriment to democracy. Blue and White will make every possible legal effort to establish the Knesset House Committee in order to prevent immunity from those indicted for crimes.”
Gantz’s reaction was predictable. He had just kicked off his campaign for the third round of Knesset elections since April, these ones slated for March 2. His ambition is to replace Bibi on Balfour Street, the location of the Prime Minister’s Residence. To achieve this goal, he has to woo and wow the public with his platform, which consists mainly of vilifying Netanyahu. Even at this endeavor he’s a rookie, though, as his comments prove.
This is not to say that he hasn’t garnered an impressive number of supporters for a newbie on the Israeli political landscape. On the contrary, he deserves credit for that, and might manage to pull off a victory, simply by hammering home the message that Netanyahu is a criminal.
It’s the “day after” that is and should be cause for the rest of us to pause. Although Gantz is a former IDF chief-of-staff who says that he will do a better job than Bibi of keeping Iran in check and handling the Palestinian conflict, he is vague about the endless other challenges that Netanyahu has maneuvered brilliantly.
Which brings us back to Leviathan, the natural-gas cash cow and international boon that activists on the Left have worked tirelessly to thwart. Some of these are members of Blue and White. All support or belong to parties with which he would join forces if a broad national-unity coalition with Likud does not materialize.
Gantz may be bent on winning the election by blocking Bibi from being granted immunity. But so far a majority of the populace has shown itself to be immune to his machinations, thanks to Netanyahu’s performance in office.