For the first time in Israel’s history, a sitting prime minister has been indicted for corruption of varying degrees, from the severe charge of bribery to the more elusive accusation of breach of trust.
As expected, the Attorney General’s dramatic announcement concerning Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s indictment was met by jubilation from the left-wing constituency.
Those to the right of the political spectrum, however, are more convinced than ever that the Attorney General’s Office is a key player in a broad conspiracy to fabricate wrongdoing on Netanyahu’s part and thus topple a Israel’s democratically-elected leader.
Hours after the decision to indict him, Netanyahu responded by echoing the right-wing assertion that he was the victim of a coup whose aim was to free Israel from the unholy yoke of not only the current prime minister, but from the Right as a whole. But rather than step aside, as his opponents expected of him, Netanyahu announced that he would continue to lead the Likud into the next election.
By so doing, Netanyahu knowingly sparked a new legal battle over whether or not a prime minister facing indictment could still govern. Israel’s Basic Law says in no uncertain terms that a prime minister can be removed from office only if found guilty, or, as the law itself reads, “should the verdict as per section (a) [guilty of offenses involving moral turpitude] … become final, the Prime Minister will cease to serve in office and the Government shall be deemed to have resigned.”
But in Israel, naturally, even this Basic Law is disputed. And the one leading the charge against the obvious, literal reading of the law in question is none other than former Supreme Court Chief Justice Aharon Barak. Barak, who many criticize for having turned Israel into a judicial oligarchy, said just days ago that whether or not Netanyahu must resign is a decision for the courts. Such a statement is consistent with the overall judicial situation today in Israel, where it’s not a simple reading of the law, but rather the judges who decide what is and isn’t legal.
Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit has announced that while Netanyahu can continue to serve as Prime Minister, he must resign the other posts he is holding: Health Minister, Welfare Minister, Agriculture Minister and Diaspora Minister. The same Basic Law that says Netanyahu can stay on as Prime Minister until proven guilty requires all other ministers to resign from office upon indictment. Mandelblit also said that despite the fact he is officially the government’s advocate, he will not defend the Prime Minister in court. His refusal to do so stems from the unique role of the Attorney General in Israel, where he is both the government’s prosecutor and advocate.
And if all that wasn’t enough, senior Likud lawmaker Gideon Sa’ar, who hopes to replace Netanyahu, now insists that the letter of the law notwithstanding, the Prime Minister’s indictment has made him a liability, and for the good of the party, he must resign. In so doing, Sa’ar joined the position of the “Blue and White” party, which has all along seen Netanyahu, not Likud, as the problem. Whether or not Sa’ar signals the beginning of the collapse of Netanyahu’s support within the Likud is not yet clear.
Meanwhile, Netanyahu and his supporters refuse to budge. As far as they are concerned, he should continue to fight until the end, because, they believe, he is the representation of a political camp under all-out attack aimed at delegitimizing right-wing ideology, and with it the Jewish character of Israel. Netanyahu’s fall, they fear, could even end Israeli democracy, and that the fabrication of criminal cases against Netanyahu is only a preview of what would happen to right-wing activists under a left-wing government.
Though such a pessimistic view seems highly subjective, there should be no doubt that the political quarrel will not end with Netanyahu out of the picture. This divide, as many begin to realize, is not caused by supposedly cynical or corrupt politicians. The divide, as not a few have already noted, is between two rival camps that can’t coexist. What we see now is the modern manifestation of the old Jewish infighting between Israelites and Judeans, Hellenists and Hasmonaeans, cosmopolitans and particularists, progressives and conservatives. This is why, in all likelihood, if Netanyahu is deposed in an undemocratic way, we could expect to see the political divide grow wider.