Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends a session of the Knesset, the Israeli parliament, in Jerusalem, on November 13, 2017. Photo: Reuters / Ronen Zvulun
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends a session of the Knesset, the Israeli parliament, in Jerusalem, on November 13, 2017. Photo: Reuters / Ronen Zvulun

There were no surprises on Sunday as the Israeli police recommended that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife be charged with bribery, fraud and breach of public trust charges in yet another corruption investigation case.

The police allege that as communications minister, Netanyahu ordered the ministry to improperly favor the interests of Israeli communications giant Bezeq in its policies. In exchange, the head of Bezeq, Shaul Elovitch, was asked to provide positive coverage of the prime minister on a popular website he owns.

The police recommendation deepens the already substantial legal trouble the prime minister is in. In February, the police recommended that Netanyahu be indicted in connection to two other corruption cases. In the first, known as Case 1000, Netanyahu is accused of accepting expensive gifts from individuals, most notably Hollywood film producer Arnon Milchen, in exchange for favors and preferential treatment. The second, known as Case 2000, is based on the charge that Netanyahu negotiated with publisher Arnon Mozes for favorable coverage of himself in the paper owned by Mozes in exchange for support of a bill to weaken its strongest competitor. 

The police recommendation is just that, a recommendation. It has no binding authority. The decision on whether or not to indict the prime minister is in the hands of the legal adviser to the government, Avichai Mandelblit, and his team to determine whether or not an indictment is warranted. They have already been reviewing the first two cases for several months and will now add Case 4000 to their workload. The recent announcement that Mandelblit hired a new team of lawyers to review the 1000 and 2000 cases implies that it will be several months before that decision is made.

Attacking institutions

In the meantime, Netanyahu has prepared the ground for a scorched-earth battle for his survival. The current strategy is a divide and conquer approach towards the legal system.

The police, which have already run out their role in the investigation, are now the target of nasty attacks directly out of the Donald Trump playbook.

In the wake of the police announcement, Netanyahu hit back with a tough speech in which he implied that the publication of the recommendations on the last day of the tenure of police chief Roni Alsheikh was indicative of a vast left-wing conspiracy.

“How did they know to time the recommendations to the last day of the police chief? It’s a real Hanukkah miracle,” he said in a tone dripping with sarcasm.

“The witch hunt against us continues…if it is not Bibi, they do not investigate,” Netanyahu said, referring to himself by his nickname. 

The rest of the Likud has lined up behind the prime minister and joined him in propagating an unprecedented level of ire at the police. Coalition whip David Amsalem said he had never seen “such evil condensed into one human being” as he did in Alsheikh. Attacking the institution itself, Amsalem said “there is genuine persecution from the police. It’s a genuine coup.”

The daggers of criticism are clearly intended to deter the justice system from filing criminal charges against Netanyahu

The attempt to harm the police and its prestige is clear. A source in the police told the Walla! website that “we expect a publicly elected prime minister to protect the rule of law and not harm the police.”

The background of Roni Alsheikh makes him a particularly difficult target for criticism from a right-wing perspective. Alsheikh was personally selected by Netanyahu in the hope that he would handle sensitive cases gingerly. He is also of Mizrachi Jewish origins, as are most Likud voters. In addition, he is religious and grew up in the particularly extremist West Bank settlement of Kiryat Arba. He even studied at the prestigious Mercaz Harav Kook Yeshiva in Jerusalem, which is heavily associated with the settler movement. The police chief is hardly what Israelis associate with left-wing elites hell-bent on replacing the current government.

In doing so, the prime minister is willfully ignoring the consequences of delegitimizing the institution at the front lines of maintaining law and order in the State of Israel. The daggers of criticism are clearly intended to deter the justice system from filing criminal charges against Netanyahu.

A global trend

While Netanyahu’s ire is currently concentrated against the police, the attorney general’s office and courts are clearly next. Both have often been targeted and weakened by right-wing criticism and reforms and are concerned for their future stature and independence. As a result, many have lamented that already fragile Israeli democratic institutions are in danger. There has been a general sense that democracy is in global retreat and the Netanyahu government is part of a wider trend of populism eroding liberal values.

It is undoubtedly true that the prime minister has shown a decreased commitment to preserving institutions and has taken an increasingly venomous joy in verbally undermining them. However, just as in the United States, Israeli democratic norms have shown resilience.

In a poll conducted in late November and early December, 48% of the public expressed approval of the police as an institution. This may sound unimpressive but it is an improvement of six points over the results of the same poll last year. Center-left voters have expressed increased trust in the police and its leadership while interestingly enough, there has been no meaningful change amongst right-wing voters. The courts are also more popular than the government. Fifty-two percent show support for the Supreme Court and 42% for the Attorney General’s office.

Netanyahu is highly likely to win the next elections and form another government. But the public is not uniformly behind him in his war against the police.

The Trumpian attempts of the Likud to besmirch the police have so far not borne fruit. Netanyahu is clearly unpopular among left-wingers, but even among his followers, he has been unable to truly inspire the passions of his followers in the way that Trump does. While the American president affects his base on a primal, visceral level, Netanyahu is respected but leaves his voters cold.

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