A Netanyahu indictment won’t save Israeli democracy

In Netanyahu’s Israel, checks and balances are irrelevant or corrupt, accountability is conspiracy, and a watchdog media is a national saboteur. Tough times are ahead.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem, January 3, 2018. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem, January 3, 2018. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

There has been no shortage of people who were thrilled by the announcement Tuesday night that Israeli police recommend indicting Benjamin Netanyahu in two corruption cases. A Haaretz headline crowed that “Netanyahu’s countdown has begun.” Opposition figures such as Labor chairman Avi Gabbay said, “the Netanyahu era has ended.”

But in Netanyahu’s defiant speech moments following the publication of the police recommendations, he insisted that his government would last its full term — through November 2019.

Netanyahu’s total dismissal of the idea of resigning — which he hardly seemed to consider long enough to reject it — is only one of the deep offenses to democracy that investigations have come to represent. What should be an enviable display of independent law enforcement agencies holding public representatives accountable, is turning into a showcase — and possibly a harbinger — of the erosion of democratic norms in Israel.

The immediate response of Netanyahu and his cronies throughout the investigation process is the outstanding example. In the lead-up to and immediate following the police recommendation to indict, their messaging went into overdrive, with eerily carbon-copy themes. David Amsalem, the current head of the coalition who replaced David Bitan, himself now under a corruption investigation, responded with a screed calling the police investigation “illegitimate in a democracy,” accusing the police of a political coup, and calling their investigation “chutzpah” – a severe accusation in Hebrew. Tourism Minister Yariv Levin, quoted in Ynet, said: “Tonight has exposed a deplorable move to enact a coup, against the wishes of the voter. It is disgraceful that the main witness against Netanyahu is [politician] Yair Lapid, who has been trying to replace him for years.”

The notion that the investigation is little more than political persecution has been repeated so steadily by Likud figures that the Israeli media began hunting for a “message box,” to determine if there was a campaign-like decision about the message. As a political consultant in my day job, I’ll speculate an obvious yes.

Further, the investigation has become a confusing fiasco of accusations and counter accusations. In the week before the announcement, Police Chief Roni Alsheikh – hand-picked by Netanyahu himself – implied that the police’s anti-corruption unit had come under pressure from private investigators sent to discredit individual detectives. Likud MKs Miki Zohar and Yoav Kisch sprung into action, arranging for Alsheikh himself to be summoned to a special Knesset committee, to look into his conduct. Netanyahu personally discredited the police chief, as part of his grand theme that all queries about his own integrity must be a political conspiracy. This dogged delegitimization prompted Channel 2/Mako commentator Zion Nanous to post derisively on Twitter:

Just to be sure I understand: Roni Alsheikh, with the huge kippa, who grew up in Kiryat Arba, studied at the Merkaz Harav Yeshiva, who lived for over 20 years in a settlement … Wants to stage a coup to topple an incumbent right-wing prime minister and bring the left into power.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a ceremony marking his appointment of Israel National Police Chief Roni Alsheikh, December 3, 2015. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a ceremony marking his appointment of Israel National Police Chief Roni Alsheikh, December 3, 2015. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Netanyahu has called the accusations about private detectives absurd. But the possibility is hardly far-fetched. During the bitter 1999 campaign between Netanyahu and Ehud Barak, thieves broke into the Washington, DC offices of Stan Greenberg, a Barak adviser, and stole-Israel related material – twice. They took nothing else, they avoided FBI alarm systems that had been installed, and were never found. That’s a sophisticated job.

In addition to the relentless political putsch theme, the government of cronies went to enormous lengths to prevent the police from publicizing the results of their investigation. The now-infamous “Recommendations Law,” in its early versions was intended to block the publication of such recommendations, and would have retroactively applied specifically to the investigations against Netanyahu. The law was amended following a large-scale public protest.

With days to go before the police were set to announce the results of their investigation, a right-wing attorney petitioned the High Court of Justice in a last-ditch effort to muzzle the findings. The petition was rejected. How long can the system withstand these assaults?

Having worked extensively in the quasi-democracies of the post-communist world, this behavior is deeply familiar to me. Countries like Romania, Bulgaria, and Ukraine have been deeply corrupt, and genuine democratic competition remains an elusive ideal (in fairness, no country is free of corrupting influences). The general pattern in those places is that whoever is accused of corruption retorts that all accusations are political. Once in power, they move decisively to destroy or delegitimize the investigation; often their rivals end up in jail. Israel isn’t there yet, but the direction is the wrong one.

The disturbing Israeli twist is the Netanyahu-flavored populism and the bastardized meaning of “democracy.” Time and again, his henchman accuse the authorities of undermining democracy, of crossing the will of the voters, of insisting that elections are the only true measure of a politician’s worthiness. These statements can be heard every day of the week from members of Knesset, and it is spooky to hear them nearly verbatim in right-wing media and from non-government figures, as if everyone’s in on the message box — or they have drunk the potion.

Democracy, Israeli society is being trained to understand, means an unmediated bond between the majority and a single leader. Checks and balances are irrelevant or corrupt; accountability is conspiracy; the media as a watchdog – national saboteurs. In his angry speech responding to the police recommendations, the prime minister boasted of attempting to shut down Israel’s Channel 10 as proof that he did not seek to assist Arnon Milchen, the billionaire he is accused of favoring, who was a shareholder in Channel 10. Let me explain the implications: the prime minister has sufficiently delegitimized the media as one grand left-wing conspiracy over the course of years, that he now he has full confidence that he can expose his personal attempt to destroy a specific media outlet, as proof of his innocence. He repeated the point with great vehemence Wednesday morning.

Finally, if democracy hasn’t been sufficiently damaged in deep and long term ways, there is another ironic scenario ahead. If the attorney general decides to indict Netanyahu, and if that should lead to early elections (not a given) – the fact is that the political map in Israel has not changed in years. The most likely winners are still the Likud bolstered by other right-wing parties; or judging by recent polls, possibly Yesh Atid, but with insufficient showing among Labor to form a realistic center-left coalition. As right-wing radio host Erel Segal quipped on IDF Radio Wednesday: “Good times, bad times, but we know who gets elected” – before ruining one my favorite songs by playing it to make his point.

Supporters of democracy in Israel are facing tough and tougher times ahead.