“If you resign now, we will not pursue you,” declared Professor Yoram Yovel, a psychologist, writing in the newspaper Ha’aretz, hinting darkly that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will do real jail time unless he leaves office voluntarily.
Netanyahu supporters, on the contrary, feel the judicial process has been manipulated by over-zealous prosecutors.
Many journalists and policy pundits have offered Netanyahu the same leave-now-or-pay-later deal over the last year. Indeed, Netanyahu could have taken the deal two years and four elections ago but he refused, believing that Israeli voters would still choose him over any representative of the Israeli left or center-left.
The results in the last three elections and current polls for the fourth election show that Netanyahu has a better reading of the electorate than most of his critics. Current polls show that of the 120 seats in the Knesset, Likud – the center-right party Netanyahu chairs – would get about 30, enough to be the largest party by far, but not a lock to form a coalition. In other words, Israel might find itself heading to yet another election in six months.
Just as the electoral picture is unclear, so is it a mixed picture in both other arenas: courtrooms and emergency rooms.
Netanyahu has clearly done a good job economically and a great job getting vaccinations for Israelis, but most voters say that through uneven lockdowns, he has mismanaged the allocation of resources and enforcement of health regulations. Moreover, hundreds of thousands of Israelis have been driven into poverty by having their businesses and jobs closed while some sectors have enjoyed a measure of favoritism.
For example, there is widespread disgust that Netanyahu has allowed the ultra-Orthodox Haredi community to keep schools open despite official lockdowns, not to mention the often brazen way some Haredi sectors have attended mass weddings and funerals during the pandemic. It is no accident that the rate of virus contraction in the Haredi community has sometimes been three or four times the level in other Israeli communities.
Mishandling of the virus response has buoyed the chances of Naftali Bennett’s Yemina (New Right) Party. He promoted mass-testing and differential lockdowns, which the health community now says would have worked better.
According to the polls, Bennett could be the kingmaker after the election on March 23, perhaps deciding whether Netanyahu or Yair Lapid of the center-left Yesh Atid Party gets to form the coalition.
Surveys show that the right-oriented Bennet would get between 10-13 of 120 Knesset seats today, with Lapid winning about 18 and Gideon Saar’s right-center New Hope Party getting about 14. The various Haredi parties are pretty sure to gather about 15 seats together.
Predicting what may occur in the election is very difficult because the Knesset representation threshold is 3.25 percent or the equivalent of four Knesset seats. A party that gets 3.24 percent gets NO seats in the Knesset.
There are several left-oriented Israeli parties that are dancing near the voter threshold of four seats: the Blue and White of Benny Gantz; the far-left Meretz Party of Nissan Horowitz; and the new Labor Party led by strong feminist icon Merav Michaeli. If any of these parties fails to make the threshold, it is a big loss to the left, as all the votes are basically thrown out, increasing the relative votes of successful parties. Netanyahu could have a bloc of 62 or maybe just 54. Tiny margins on the threshold spell the difference.
The hard-right Religious Zionist Party of Bezalel Smotrich shows results of four to five seats. Smotrich broke from Bennett and made a deal with Itamar Ben-Gvir, a former backer of Meir Kahane. Both men have made no secret of their hard-line positions on Israeli territory as well as social issues such as gay rights. His party also might not make the cut.
The Israeli electorate is not a mirror of Smotrich, but it is clearly more on the right than on the left. It is suspicious of a deal with the Palestinians and distrusts socialism.
The Labor Party that once had 40 seats is now struggling to get four, and only Labor and Meretz actually call themselves left-oriented parties.
It is not surprising the Israeli left has pinned its hopes on a swift conviction of Netanyahu, because, in Jerusalem – not in Washington – we have seen the indictment, trial, and punishment of leaders: former President Moshe Katsav got jail time for rape in 2010, and Prime Minister Ehud Olmert was pushed out of office in 2008, and in 2014 went to jail on corruption charges – including bribery – uncovered during his time as mayor of Jerusalem (1993-2003).
Netanyahu faces what the Israelis call mishpatei ha-alef: “the cases of the thousands.”
Even the name sounds like a Hollywood billboard for a movie. Three separate sets of charges that could send him to jail. For real.
The Israeli State Prosecutor’s office has spent over one $100 million – nearly half a billion shekels – for this blockbuster: scores of witnesses, many from colorful backgrounds (yes, including Hollywood producer Arnon Milchin), but the blockbuster may prove a flop.
In “Case 4000,” Netanyahu is charged with manipulating communication regulations in return for favorable press coverage from a company called Walla. Some Walla officials also are charged with offering bribes.
“Case 2,000” charges Netanyahu tried to seduce favorable press coverage from Yediot Aharonot, Israel’s best-selling newspaper. Yediot’s director, Arnon “Nuni” Moses, is charged with offering a bribe.
Both cases will test new legal territory: whether a politician can be tried for attempting to get good press by promising preferential treatment of certain media. No one in Israel – and probably not in most Western countries – has ever been tried for this kind of charge.
In addition, the prosecution has admitted it obtained some testimony and evidence with extreme tactics or even illegal means. The Jerusalem District Court already has admonished the prosecution on some matters, though that does not mean it will invalidate the case.
Many legal observers say both media cases – 2,000- and 4,000 – are weak for many other reasons as well. Israeli reporters and politicians have always made deals for getting better coverage
“Case 1,000,” however, involves actual tangible gifts received and even solicited by Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife, Sarah. The sums involved are not large. Some might call it “chicken feed” or by the legal term de minimus. But there is a Talmudic adage that should worry Netanyahu: “din pruta ke-din meiah” – a judgment in a one-cent case is like a judgment in a dollar case.
Other prime ministers and their families – Yitzhak and Leah Rabin, Shimon Peres, Ariel Sharon – were not held to account for these kinds of personal gifts. But times have changed, and this part of the case holds real jeopardy for Netanyahu.
Michael Widlanski is a Jerusalem-based journalist and advised Israeli negotiation teams at the Madrid and Washington talks in 1991-92.