The news that the Israeli police had recommended that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu should be charged in two bribery cases left Israelis with mixed feelings.
On the one hand, there was pride in a democratic system, where nobody is above the law. On the other hand, there was shame, for having one prime minister, Ehud Olmert, already serving time in jail for corruption. Now another one is facing charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust.
Netanyahu, of course, is innocent until proven guilty, but the question is whether this axiom really works in the case of a leader of a nation who is judged daily in another court — that of the public opinion. Unlike the American presidential system where, short of impeachment, the public might be stuck with a leader it entirely distrusts. In the Israeli parliamentary system, a prime minister who has lost the public’s trust might be ousted and replaced by another.
The day after the Israeli police’s recommendations were released, Channel 10 TV aired a poll that showed that 53 percent of Israelis don’t believe Netanyahu when he said that, “There was nothing,” while 34 percent do. And this is only the beginning. The police are investigating two more cases in which Netanyahu might be implicated: the sale of submarines to the Israeli Navy, where Netanyahu’s lawyer is suspected of “pay-for-play;” and while serving as communications minister, Netanyahu may have violated conflict of interest in his dealing with his friend, the owner of Bezeq, Israel’s biggest telecommunications corporation.
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Should a prime minister suspected of corruption step down?
Absolutely not, according to Netanyahu. A few minutes after the police recommendations were made public, he appeared live on television, dismissing the accusations and promising that he would continue to lead Israel until the next elections, which are due to take place at the end of 2019, win those elections and continue ruling us for a long time.
However, when Prime Minister Olmert was charged with corruption, that same Benjamin Netanyahu, who at the time led the opposition, had quite different things to say. “A prime minister who is up to his neck in investigations doesn’t have the moral and the public mandate to make fateful decisions,” he told Channel 2 TV in December 2008. “There is the concern that he might make decisions not according to what is best for the nation, but only for his own political survival.”
So which Netanyahu should we embrace, the 2018 or the 2008 model? And given the fragile security situation in the north of Israel, where a clash with Iranian forces in Syria and Lebanon is probable, shouldn’t we suspect that Netanyahu might “make decisions not according to what is best for the nation, but only for his own political survival?”
Netanyahu should be removed from power, because he leads Israel — by action and inaction — toward one, bi-national state, where Israel either loses its Jewish character or its democracy. However, this should happen via the ballot, not in the courts. But since Netanyahu's coalition partners seem to be waiting for the attorney general’s decision whether or not to accept the recommendations of the police, we are doomed to a period of political instability, with a prime minister who might become a lame duck.
The greatest danger in such a scenario is the onslaught on the law enforcement agencies, which Netanyahu had no qualms in launching. Not only did he dismiss the recommendations as “biased, extreme, full of holes, like Swiss cheese,” he also questioned the integrity of the police investigators who produced them. Perhaps he took a cue from President Trump, whose public fight with the FBI may have won him some applause from his die-hard supporters, but is surely undermining the trust in government.
Maybe Netanyahu’s party, Likud, will take a cue from South Africa, where the ANC recently had enough of President Jacob Zuma, nicknamed “Teflon President” for his ability to survive so many corruption scandals, and forced him to quit.
I'm not holding my breath, though.