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An Indictment of an Indictment

 

When Israel’s Attorney-General, Avichai Mandelbit, submitted official paperwork to indict Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, many thought that was the final nail in his political coffin. An indictment of a sitting Prime Minister? That's pretty hard to shake off before an upcoming election, or is it? In the following article from the Jerusalem Post, Lahav Harkov breaks down why voters seemed to overlook Netanyahu’s legal woes in the latest election: 

It has been a persistent political meme since the end of 2016, when it was first brought to light that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was under investigation for alleged corruption offenses, that the end of his political career was imminent.

Yet three years, three investigations and three indictments – including one bribery charge – later, Netanyahu is still living on Balfour Street in Jerusalem and will probably start negotiations to form his fifth – fourth consecutive – government. The indictment did not seem to be on voters’ minds, and if it was, then they didn’t care enough about it to abandon Netanyahu.

Five weeks ago, Netanyahu went to Washington for US President Donald Trump’s presentation of his peace plan. On that trip, Netanyahu withdrew his request to the Knesset to grant him immunity, because he seemed unlikely to win. Attorney-General Avichai Mandelblit submitted Netanyahu’s indictment on the same day that Trump announced his “Peace to Prosperity” plan.

The silver lining for Netanyahu of not having an immunity request on the Knesset’s docket was that long debates on his status would not be at the top of the news in the weeks before an election.

But an indictment of a sitting prime minister was unprecedented; one could easily think it would have hurt him electorally.

The polls remained steady. It’s possible that an indictment dip and a peace-plan bump canceled each other out. But what is more likely, judging from polls in February 2019 after Mandelblit first recommended that Netanyahu be indicted, and from the election six weeks later, is that nobody’s mind was changed when Netanyahu was officially charged in 2020, just like they didn’t care last year.

Beyond Knesset polls, Netanyahu led in just about every survey that asked who is most appropriate candidate for prime minister in the past year and a half.

Why didn’t Netanyahu’s legal woes make a dent?

First of all, the corruption allegations had been in the news for three years at that point. The public had a long time to make up its mind, and Mandelblit filing some paperwork clearly didn’t make a difference.

Second, and this is what’s most important, is that plenty of people don’t care enough about the indictment to not vote for the religious-right bloc.

There certainly are people who think Netanyahu may be guilty but are willing to overlook that. Some of these people adore Netanyahu anyway and want him to stick around. Some of these people think Netanyahu should resign and let someone else lead the Right, whether it be Likud MK Gideon Sa’ar, who ran against him in Likud’s primary last year, or Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein, or former Jerusalem mayor Nir Barkat or any number of Likudniks and other right-wing politicians who think they should be Netanyahu’s heir.

But there’s also a growing element of distrust in the Israeli legal system. The Right has been critical of the judiciary for over a decade, with bills trying to fight the self-selecting system of appointing new Supreme Court justices, which the Right has long argued only brought in left-wing activist judges. This extended to criticism of the system of legal advisers to ministries, who blocked government policies with arguments that they would be shot down by the Supreme Court.

Netanyahu came to these positions reluctantly, but they grew popular enough in his base that he supported his MKs and ministers who worked to promote them. Justice minister Ayelet Shaked made deals with the Bar Association leading to conservative judges being confirmed. Science and Technology Minister Ofir Akunis argued his own positions before the Supreme Court when his ministry’s legal adviser wouldn’t support them. Right-wing parties have sought to make a bill that would allow the Knesset to override the Supreme Court’s cancellation of laws into a part of the next coalition agreement.

These views are completely legitimate. But they also primed Netanyahu supporters to disregard anything coming from the legal system. Some have a nuanced legal analysis of the weaker points of The State of Israel vs Benjamin Netanyahu.

Others espouse conspiracy theories about a “State Attorney’s Office inside the State Attorney’s Office,” or as pro-Netanyahu pundit Erel Segal calls it, the “deep shtetl,” a Jewish state takeoff on the “deep state.” But no matter what name they give it, the idea is that a powerful cabal within the Justice Ministry wants Netanyahu out.

As these lines are written, we don’t know if a large plurality or a slight majority of voters backed parties in Netanyahu’s camp. Either way, it seems he will have a path to build another government, because enough people found reasons to vote for Likud or parties supporting him that are a higher priority than having a prime minister who’s not under indictment.

They may note that Israel just had the most peaceful decade in its history and see the State of Israel’s economy and growing ties with the world and say they want to continue the policies and type of leadership that made it that way. They may want Israel to apply its laws to the Jordan Valley and towns in Judea and Samaria. They may be ideologically right-wing on a number of issues and will always vote for the Right no matter who leads it.

No matter what views these right-wing voters hold on Netanyahu’s legal troubles – that they are unfounded or valid – they still thought he was the better choice for prime minister than Blue and White leader Benny Gantz. In a way, this vote was an indictment of Netanyahu’s indictment and everyone who stands behind it.