Netanyahu's desensitizing of the public is dangerous

While Netanyahu broke up his government because of the pending announcement on an indictment, he didn’t run away from the issue. On the contrary – he never stopped talking about it.

PRIME MINISTER Benjamin Netanyahu attends a cabinet meeting at the Chagall Hall in the Knesset in May. (photo credit: ABIR SULTAN / REUTERS)
PRIME MINISTER Benjamin Netanyahu attends a cabinet meeting at the Chagall Hall in the Knesset in May.
(photo credit: ABIR SULTAN / REUTERS)
With just weeks remaining before April 2019 and the first of the unprecedented trio of elections, Attorney-General Avichai Mandelblit announced his intention to indict Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust. While the announcement was expected, political insiders were wondering whether Netanyahu would survive. Never before in Israeli history had a sitting prime minister been indicted.
Like everyone else, Netanyahu knew the decision was coming. In mid-December 2018, Shai Nitzan – state attorney at the time – announced the Netanyahu investigations had been completed, and that a decision on an indictment would be made soon. Within a week, Netanyahu dispersed the Knesset with what seemed like a single goal: try to get reelected and form a new right-wing coalition before the official announcement.
The clock was ticking.
But what happened next was interesting. While Netanyahu broke up his government because of the pending announcement on an indictment, he didn’t run away from the issue. On the contrary – he never stopped talking about it. At every rally and in every speech, he spoke about the witch hunt against him and the way the police were leaking their investigation evidence; the way the attorney-general was setting him up; and that the media was biased.
If anyone thought Netanyahu would want to play down the looming decision, they were wrong. Netanyahu grabbed it by the horns and ran with it, all the way to the ballot box on April 9.
Netanyahu started off strong in the initial election polls, but after Benny Gantz merged with Yair Lapid in mid-February, the numbers started to slip. One poll on February 23 showed Blue and White netting 36 seats and the Likud a mere 30. The indictment had not yet been announced, and the expectation was that Netanyahu would fall even further when it was.
But when the announcement arrived a week later, nothing changed. The drop caused by the Gantz-Lapid merger held steady, but that was as far as Likud would fall. By April 9, Netanyahu had recouped his losses and led Likud to a tie with Blue and White at 35 seats.
Thinking back to that period, it’s hard not to appreciate Netanyahu’s political wizardry. Here he was for the first time facing an entire bloc aligned against him, an attorney-general announcing he was going to indict him – and still he managed to tie the score.
THERE IS a term for what Netanyahu did last year. He desensitized the public. By constantly talking about the indictment and keeping it forever in the news, he succeeded in turning his legal woes into a non-story by the time it was official. Yes, it caused some damage when Likud started to trail Blue and White in the weeks leading up to the announcement, but once the indictment was announced, the needle never moved. Not a bit.
“Netanyahu pounded his message on indictment into the minds of voters so often that when it was actually filed, it had no influence on the way voters perceived Netanyahu or how they planned to vote,” one strategist who worked on a different party’s campaign during that election recalled this week. “Voters had already made up their minds on the issue.”
I was reminded of what had taken place 14 months ago after two Supreme Court justices – Uzi Vogelman and Anat Baron – filed police complaints and were put under government protection this week after receiving threats to their homes. They joined Attorney-General Avichai Mandelblit and Liat Ben Ari – the lead prosecutor in the Netanyahu trial – who already have 24/7 security.
The threats against the judges, Mandelblit and Ben Ari is all expected. They are at the focus of Netanyahu’s constant attacks, which never seem to stop. Every day it is against someone else. One day it is about Mandelblit not being objective in his decision to indict the prime minister due to past suspicions against him – of which he was exonerated – in the Harpaz Affair. The next week, Netanyahu is calling to put top investigative journalist Raviv Drucker in jail. Nothing is off limits or out of bounds. Everyone is fair game.
Netanyahu knew that a natural consequence of the attacks leveled against the nation’s criminal justice system by him and his fellow Likud members could lead to threats or even attacks on its members. So what did he do?
In the last three weeks, the prime minister filed three police complaints over threats leveled against him and his family. It doesn’t matter that the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) surrounds him like the Great Wall of China. Every post on Facebook or activist yelling into a megaphone is worth a complaint.
I am not downplaying the severity of threats to the prime minister or his family. Like the Secret Service in the US, the Shin Bet’s VIP Protection Unit – otherwise known as Unit 730 – doesn’t wait for someone to act on a threat. They actively go after the people issuing them.
But why would Netanyahu make a big deal about them?
Because he wants to level the playing field between the threats against him and those now being made against judges. He knew that due to his aggressive attacks on the judiciary people would issue threats or even worse against judges and prosecutors, so he needed to show that it’s not just them who are threatened. It’s also him. Again, he needed to desensitize the public.
This is something Israelis should not allow themselves to get used to. We should not acclimate ourselves to a situation in which the prime minister carries on while at the same time standing trial for severe corruption charges – charges that anyone who is a teacher, a doctor or a fireman would have to leave her or his post as a result. We cannot allow ourselves to become desensitized to this situation. It is abnormal and should not be allowed to become the new normal.
We should also not forget that when a prosecutor in the Netanyahu trial requires full-time security, that is a stain on our country. The fact that judges are waking up to letters threatening them and their children cannot be something that the public tolerates. Have we not learned what happens when talk of this kind goes unchecked? Do Israelis really have such a short-term memory?
AND THEN there is annexation. While the question on everyone’s mind is what exactly will Israel do – annex all of the 30% allowed in the plan, or something much smaller? – the more important question is, why is Netanyahu even doing this? Why does he even need annexation?
Netanyahu has been prime minister now for 11 consecutive years. In all that time, he not only refrained from unilateral moves but actually did the opposite: he froze settlement construction, he endorsed a two-state solution, he held direct negotiations with the Palestinians and, let us not forget, he released hundreds of Palestinian terrorists from Israeli prisons in an effort to jump-start peace talks.
There is a legitimate argument to make that he did all that to avoid the wrath of Barack Obama; but what is also true is that Netanyahu genuinely is against a one-state solution. He never acted to annex territory – not in his first term between 1996 and 1999, when he not only respected but also continued the Oslo process, but also not over these past three years of the Trump administration, when he could have easily passed an annexation decision through his cabinet.
The reason is because deep down, Netanyahu knows the risks that come with annexation. There is the tense situation with Jordan; the possibility of an outbreak of violence in the West Bank that could escalate into a third intifada; and even more concerning, the possibility that Mahmoud Abbas will dismantle the Palestinian Authority and return to Israel the keys to the West Bank. In the IDF this is considered the most dangerous scenario but one that cannot be ruled out, according to intelligence officials.
So why even do it?
There are three reasons. First, there is a genuine opportunity. The current occupant of the Oval Office does not really care one way or another about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but does seem to enjoy upending decades of diplomatic standards and ideas that were considered the basis for any resolution. Recognizing Israeli annexation while the whole world opposes it is just the latest example.
The second reason is that for Netanyahu, annexation is a convenient distraction from his criminal trial. If there wasn’t annexation to talk about, the press and the public would need to find something else. That something else could be the charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust that he will again face in the Jerusalem District Court when his trial reconvenes next month. He would naturally prefer that it not be the case.
And then there is the third reason. As Herb Keinon writes in Front Lines this week, Netanyahu wants the public to believe the trial is not against him but against the entire right wing, as he declared at the opening of his trial. Annexation is not just about distracting the public but about getting people to believe that they are on trial with the prime minister.
In other words, the trial is not about the cigars he received or the bottles of champagne; it is not about the alleged bribery deal he tried brokering with Yediot Aharonot’s owner; nor even about the bribe he allegedly received from Bezeq owner Shaul Elovich. Instead, it is all an attempt by a left-wing justice system to undermine the will of the people and the “right-wing camp.”
The purpose of this is, once again, to delegitimize the court and the whole legal process against him. It’s not about rule of law but about politics, and as a result it is wrong and illegitimate.
By moving ahead with annexation, Netanyahu reinforces that idea. He, the leader of Israel trying to make history by annexing the biblical heartland, is being stopped once again by a left-wing judiciary. It has nothing to do with his alleged crimes, but only about him supporting Israeli sovereignty over Judea and Samaria.
This of course is absurd, but it makes no difference. Netanyahu has a clear plan. He wants to desensitize Israelis. One time it is about numbing the public to his indictment, and the next it is about death threats against judges and prosecutors.
What happens though if we wake up one day and hear that Netanyahu is refusing to appear at his trial and that he won’t go to court? Half the country will condemn the move and call on the police to arrest him, and the other half will applaud Netanyahu for standing up to a biased court, an illegitimate indictment, and a left-wing media.
This is why desensitization is dangerous. If allowed, it will destroy Israel’s democratic character.