Delaying Netanyahu’s trial would distort Israeli election
It is just over four years since the first corruption allegations against Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu began to emerge. At first they came in dribs and drabs, but soon the floodgates opened. Eventually, the police investigations led to charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust in three cases. Over these four long years, the Israeli prime minister, his political allies and his legal team have done everything in their capacity to obstruct the investigation, smear the name of the country’s general prosecution and the police, and incite against media outlets reporting on the allegations, falsely accusing them of a political witch-hunt.
When the charges were eventually brought against Netanyahu, he began cynically exploiting his political power and wealth to delay the legal proceedings. Now he is dragging the country into a fourth election in two years, all for the sake of saving his own skin and escaping justice. He has used every kind of evasive action to prevent his court case progressing, including a contemptuous manipulation of the coronavirus pandemic, which he has so miserably failed to manage, resulting in more than 5,500 Israelis deaths, hundreds of thousands contracting the virus, record unemployment rates, and collapsed businesses.
At last, the date for the evidentiary phase of his trial was set for early this month, after a series of postponements mainly instigated by Netanyahu himself. However, as was only to be expected, the defendant in the most infamous corruption trial in Israel’s history has not only denied his guilt, but his lawyers had the audacity to request that the evidentiary phase be postponed by three or four months, in a move clearly designed to avoid embarrassing evidence against Netanyahu being aired in public before the March 23 election.
Needless to say that, just like any other Israeli citizen facing charges, Netanyahu is innocent until proven guilty, but at the same time he is not entitled to preferential treatment at any stage of the legal process. It is the duty of the justice system to bring this sorry saga to a conclusion for the sake of the country, its people and the democratic process, and to maintain public trust in the justice system itself. No other citizen would have had the privilege of the police interviewing them in the comfort of their own home, let alone the official residence of one of the most powerful people in the country, as happened in this case. No other citizen would have the power to order the shutdown of the courts as one of the first measures to “combat” the pandemic, and with that delay the beginning of his trial. This was also at a very convenient time — in the immediate aftermath of another inconclusive election last March and in the midst of his efforts to form a coalition government led by himself.
Netanyahu has surrounded himself with sycophants who are joining him in attacking and smearing judges and prosecutors without a shred of evidence and in complete disregard for the long-term damage this behavior does to the democratic system. The day before a scheduled court hearing of Netanyahu’s cases last month, Knesset Speaker Yariv Levin — one of the prime minister’s main henchmen — called for the trial to be postponed in order to prevent “blatant election interference.” In an organized crime-style approach, he told a newspaper that the legal system in Israel has “crudely trampled” on the basic rule of not interfering with an election. His suggestion that the “prosecution witnesses are heard before the election, while the defense witnesses — including the prime minister — are heard after the election is an unfair situation” was a deliberate distortion of events. Had it not been for Netanyahu’s delaying tactics and manipulation of the legal and political systems, including calling election after election as a tool to prevent justice being done, all the evidence would have been heard long ago.
What Netanyahu and his allies in the Likud party are afraid of is for the public to hear the evidence of his and his wife’s alleged voracity in demanding and accepting expensive presents from businessmen with economic interests in Israel. Equally, they wouldn’t like the electorate to see, so soon before the election, a string of witnesses and prosecutors outline the nature of meetings with influential media moguls with whom Netanyahu was allegedly exchanging favors, using his power to benefit them financially should they provide positive coverage of him and his family, thus damaging public trust in the objectivity of the media and in a truly transparent and accountable democratic process.
If, as Netanyahu has argued for years in reference to the accusations against him, “there will be nothing because there is nothing,” why then is he so afraid of the evidentiary phase of the trial starting as soon as possible? And, yes, after years of investigations, indictments and three inconclusive elections, hijacked and distorted by Netanyahu’s legal affairs and leading to a fourth one next month, it is time, once and for all, for this tragic chapter in Israel’s history to come to a conclusion. It must be done in accordance with the law of the country, not with a procedure dictated by a politician for his own benefit. The sooner the voters are aware of the evidence as presented by the prosecution and the defense, the quicker the country can recover from this traumatic affair.
It is the duty of the justice system to bring this sorry saga to a conclusion for the sake of the country, its people and the democratic process.
Allowing Netanyahu to run for the top job for four consecutive elections and to occupy the post of prime minister, first during his investigation and then after being indicted for bribery, fraud and breach of trust, makes a mockery of good governance. If he is guilty, it must be the end of his political career. And, if he is acquitted, it should be left for the electorate to decide his political fate. What is unacceptable is leaving it to the most powerful person in the country to control and manipulate both the judicial and the democratic processes in order to bury the cases against him by making sure they are never decided by the courts.
- Yossi Mekelberg is professor of international relations at Regent’s University London, where he is head of the International Relations and Social Sciences Program. He is also an associate fellow of the MENA Program at Chatham House. He is a regular contributor to the international written and electronic media. Twitter: @YMekelberg