Netanyahu's scorched-earth battle with court is unhealthy for democracy

Does Netanyahu not realize what he is doing? Does he not understand that speaking this way will turn part of the country against our criminal justice system?

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu makes his way into court on Monday. (photo credit: OREN BEN HAKOON/POOL)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu makes his way into court on Monday.
(photo credit: OREN BEN HAKOON/POOL)
 Two weeks before the March 23 election, the Jerusalem Post’s Lahav Harkov sat down with Benjamin Netanyahu for a short interview.
You are Israel’s longest-serving prime minister, said Harkov; what do you think your legacy will be?
Netanyahu didn’t hesitate.
“The protector of Israel,” he replied, before going into detail on how he has fought against Iran and its pursuit of nuclear weapon.
“I have devoted my life so far successfully to preventing them from being able to do that, and as long as I am prime minister, they will never be able to do that,” he explained. “So that’s my legacy, the protector of Israel.”
Who would’ve thought that less than a month later, Iran and the United States would be sitting down for talks once again in Vienna, in the very same hotel where the 2015 nuclear deal that Netanyahu tried to stop – but failed – was reached?
His choice of title – “Protector of Israel” – was interesting to consider while listening to the speech he gave on Monday evening, hours after attending the opening of his bribery trial at the Jerusalem District Court.
“It’s a witch hunt,” Netanyahu said, railing against the judiciary, the police, and the rest of Israel’s criminal justice system. “They didn’t investigate a crime; they didn’t look for a crime; they hunted for a man – they hunted me. This is what illegitimate use of power looks like. This is how you try to topple a strong prime minister from the right wing. This is what a coup attempt looks like.”
It was a scorched-earth speech as all-encompassing as any can be. Netanyahu attacked everyone: the police chief, the attorney-general, the prosecution. His message was simple: they are against me, and they are corrupt. Burn it all down.
Does Netanyahu not realize what he is doing? Does he not understand that speaking this way will turn part of the country against our criminal justice system, will make them lose what little trust is left in our country’s institutions? Is that good for the country? Will it make us stronger? Will it make us a better nation?
The truth is, I didn’t plan on writing about politics this week – after endless columns about the election, we all needed a break. But when Netanyahu gave that speech, it could not be ignored, because if we do ignore it, if we do grow complacent, we become accomplices. That is something that cannot be allowed to happen.
It wasn’t that long ago that Netanyahu took a completely different approach to political corruption cases. In 2008, when Ehud Olmert was prime minister and under police investigation, Netanyahu called on him to resign.
This was before the police had completed their investigations; before they had recommended that Olmert be indicted; before the indictment had been filed in court; and before the trial had actually begun. Nevertheless, Netanyahu was adamant.
“The prime minister is up to his neck in investigations,” Netanyahu said at the time. “He does not have a moral or public mandate to determine fateful issues for the State of Israel.”
What Netanyahu forgot to add was that what he said then only applied to Olmert. Not to him. Never to him.
So today, after Netanyahu investigations are over, after the police have recommended that he be indicted, after his indictment has been filed with the court, and after his trial has begun, it seems that he still has the “moral and public mandate” to remain in office.
How is that possible?
THE SITUATION Israel finds itself in today is possibly the unhealthiest reality for a liberal democracy. With the prime minister on trial three days a week, with severe testimony being heard from each successive witness, every decision that he makes now is suspect. Is he doing something because it is in the interest of the nation, or because it serves him personally? Sometimes it will be clear; other times we won’t really know.
That we even have to wonder about this is bad news. In an ideal system of government, people need to be able to trust their government, and work off the assumption that what their elected officials do is almost always meant to serve and advance the nation. But that is definitely not the case in Israel today.
Even more so when it comes to Netanyahu’s own legal troubles: we should not believe the mouthpieces whom he has planted throughout the media (mostly on Channel 20 and Army Radio), who claim that his blasting of the justice system is not about himself but to help others. He only wants reform, these representatives claim, in order to help the public, so that regular citizens don’t suffer like he does.
The reason this is hard to believe is because until his own legal troubles, Netanyahu was the judicial system’s guardian angel. Literally. He systematically rejected any attempt to change the balance of power between the legislature and the judiciary.
When Ayelet Shaked was justice minister in 2015, for example, she asked Netanyahu to work with her to separate the two roles of the attorney-general and appoint two different people: one as head of the criminal justice system, the other as legal adviser to the government.
Netanyahu refused.
Shaked then tried to cancel the need for the government to have to rely on a search committee to choose an attorney-general, and instead appoint one directly on its own.
This also was stopped by Netanyahu.
Another time, Shaked and Bezalel Smotrich – when they were still in the same party – tried to advance a law that would allow the Knesset to bypass the Supreme Court if it tried to annul a piece of legislation.
That too he refused.
Now these initiatives are all being spoken about as absolutely critical for the State of Israel. Netanyahu and his media allies rally daily calling for reforms to the court, to the attorney-general’s office, and more.
So does he really care about legal reforms so all of us will not face a witch hunt or coup like he claims is being waged against him, or because he wants to ensure his own political survival? I’ll leave the answer up to you.
How these attacks actually help Netanyahu’s defense is unclear. The judges are unlikely to be intimidated by the rhetoric – indeed, they are likely to be turned off by it. On the other hand, what it does achieve is shape the public narrative, and keep his base of voters consolidated in the event that coalition talks fail and he does not succeed in forming a government over the next four weeks.
For now, that is all that really matters: forming a government, or at the very least preventing anyone else from forming one. Both scenarios work for Netanyahu since in either case he remains prime minister – either as head of a narrow, right-wing coalition, or as head of an interim government.
His calculation is that by the time Israel holds a fifth election – likely in September if no government is formed – the public will have become desensitized to the ongoing trial, and that at most he will lose a couple of seats. When the gap between Likud now and the party coming in second is already 13 seats, a couple of lost seats won’t be the end of the world.
The specter of a fifth election – while terrible for the country – does not spell the end of our democracy. It also doesn’t mean that Israel’s democratic system is broken. Yes, we have political instability, no state budget, and overall governmental paralysis. But the system is not broken.
On the contrary: if anything has been proven over the last two years and four elections, it is that the system works. Yes, God knows we could use some electoral reform – the easiest would be to raise the electoral threshold to weed out the smaller parties – but the fact is, no one has been able to steal an election, and no one has been able to cancel the public’s right to vote.
We might not be able to force our elected officials to form a government, but we can and do force them into some accountability by making them come back – albeit a bit too often – to ask us to give them our trust. That is a sign that our system still works.