Benjamin Netanyahu Is Indicted on Criminal Charges, and His Defiance Puts Israel’s Democracy at Risk

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s defiant response to the three indictments finally brought against him, on Thursday, would, under any circumstances, constitute a crisis for the rule of law in Israel. But Netanyahu’s defiance comes as the climax of a larger crisis for Israel’s democracy, which has been building at least since Netanyahu’s reëlection, in 2015. It places the country’s divided people on unknown and dangerous terrain. The indictments—for bribery, fraud, and breach of trust—are, Netanyahu insists, an attempted “coup” against him, conducted by the police, the state prosecutor’s office, and other judicial authorities—his version of the Trumpian claim that a “deep state” is attempting to overturn the will of the electorate. He seems intent on conducting a preëmptive countercoup using the office of Prime Minister, which he currently occupies only as the head of a transitional government, to appoint potential allies to key government positions, conduct escalatory military operations, collude with an increasingly desperate Donald Trump, and rally his followers against Israeli Arabs, whose parties he tars with the vague charge of “supporting terrorism.” Two close elections this year have not returned Netanyahu to the office, but they have not dislodged him either.

By law, an Israeli minister indicted for a criminal offense is required to resign. By precedent, a Prime Minister must: two already have, and not for crimes committed while in office. Yet Netanyahu seems determined not to relinquish power. “My sense of justice burns within me,” he said on Thursday evening, in a speech that was unprecedented in its pathos and its attacks on state prosecutors, including the Attorney General, Avichai Mandelblit, who had announced the indictments. “I cannot believe that the country I fought for and was wounded for, that I’ve brought to such achievements,” he said, will allow “this kind of tainted justice.” For the rule of law to prevail, he added, “we have to do one thing: to finally investigate the investigators,” which would entail the appointment of an “outside” commission of inquiry into the prosecution’s methods, as if the Attorney General, whom Netanyahu himself appointed, were somehow part of a secret conspiracy against him.

Yohanan Plesner, the director of the Israel Democracy Institute, has called for Netanyahu to resign, saying, “The head of government serving in office under the shadow of indictment harms the public’s trust in the country’s institutions and Israel’s character as a Jewish and democratic state.” The danger, though, is that the defenses of a “Jewish” state, for which Netanyahu claims to be indispensable, and those of a “democratic” state, which presume laws promoting individual sovereignty and equality, are not comfortably conjoined in a country where theocratic power and occupation have been increasingly normalized, at least since 1967. And it is especially difficult to see how surviving leaders of Netanyahu’s Likud Party will see democratic norms as paramount when their political positions depend on not seeing them. Netanyahu’s Justice Minister, Amir Ohana, said that he is “completely confident that the test of history” will vindicate Netanyahu’s remaining in office. The Tourism Minister, Yariv Levin—an attorney and a former deputy head of the Israel Bar Association—defended Netanyahu’s claim that the investigations were “tainted.”

Just twenty-four hours before Mandelblit announced the indictments, Benny Gantz, whose Blue and White Party won a plurality in Israel’s September election, informed President Reuven Rivlin that he had failed to form a governing coalition, which would have made him the next Prime Minister. Gantz blamed his failure primarily on Netanyahu’s determination to escape prosecution. Urged on by Avigdor Lieberman—the leader of the secular, right-wing Yisrael Beiteinu (“Israel, Our Home”) party, who holds the balance of power in the Knesset—Gantz had tried to form a “liberal, national-unity coalition” with Likud. This, Lieberman said, would be a center-right government without either religious “messianic” parties or Arab ones (a slight to Arab leaders, who mainly argue for democratic norms, not Arab-nationalist excesses). Gantz seemed ready to accede to Rivlin’s formula that Netanyahu should be Prime Minister first in such a unity government—with the proviso, to be legally guaranteed, that Gantz would become the acting Prime Minister should Netanyahu be indicted and forced to take a “leave of absence” to defend himself in court.

Netanyahu rejected even this formula, insisting that the Haredi and national-Orthodox parties should join him in a coalition—presumably in exchange for securing Netanyahu’s immunity from prosecution—and that Netanyahu should go first as Prime Minister. Neither condition was acceptable to Blue and White. Frustrated, Gantz quietly floated the idea of founding a minority government resting on the support—actually, the agreed parliamentary abstentions—of the Joint List, composed of parties representing Israel’s Arab citizens. Netanyahu declared, “If a minority government like this is formed, they will celebrate in Tehran, Ramallah, and Gaza the way they celebrate after every terror attack. This would be a historic national terror attack on the State of Israel.”

Lieberman, a nationalist bigot, didn’t need Netanyahu’s demagogy to scotch any such government; key members of Gantz’s own party who were once associated with Netanyahu threatened to sink the idea of a government requiring Arab support. These are not simply tactical moves by sly politicians; they testify to an atmosphere in which an embattled Netanyahu seems certain that he would have the backing of the majority to subordinate liberal democratic institutions. He thus seems, in his own way, to join the ranks of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, in Turkey, and Viktor Orbán, in Hungary. The attacks on Israeli Arabs are telltale.

Gantz’s response to Netanyahu’s “investigate the investigators” speech was immediate. The country is not “undergoing a government coup,” he said, but rather “an entrenchment.” Yet, as a former Army chief of staff who conducted the 2014 war in Gaza under Netanyahu, Gantz could not fully lay out how brazen Netanyahu’s acts of entrenchment have been. On November 8th, while Gantz was trying to reach a political agreement with the Joint List, Netanyahu appointed the ultra-rightist Naftali Bennett as Defense Ministerreportedly admitting to Likud ministers that inviting his younger rival into the transitional cabinet was a political maneuver, meant to keep his bloc of rightist and Orthodox allies from bolting. Then, on November 12th, Israeli air strikes in Gaza killed Baha Abu al-Ata, a commander of Islamic Jihad, which is backed by Iran.

The Ata assassination was predictably followed by escalating exchanges of fire between Islamic Jihad and Israeli forces, along with new exchanges between Israel and Iranian-backed Syrian forces, culminating in Israeli air strikes on dozens of Iranian and Syrian military targets in Syria, which killed as many as twenty Iranians. Michael Oren, the former Israeli Ambassador to Washington, wrote in The Atlantic that, should war break out in Israel’s north, the country could be hit by as many as four thousand missiles a day. No one should doubt the mounting Iranian threat in Syria. But no one should doubt, either, how convenient the timing of the assassination was for Netanyahu. His and Bennett’s decision to kill Ata came just as Gantz was trying to form a government, arguably, a coincidence: Ata was, Netanyahu said, “a ticking bomb.” Inarguably, however, the ticking must have seemed louder to Netanyahu just as Gantz entertained the idea of coöperating with Israeli-Arab political leaders, many of whom have routinely condemned Israeli military actions in Gaza.

Netanyahu’s remaining in office would mean continued concessions from the Trump Administration, which is apparently eager to show itself a faithful ally to pro-Israel forces in America, and is willing to accommodate Netanyahu with escalating shows of devotion to his rightist base. On November 18th, before Gantz gave up trying to form a government, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced that the State Department will no longer abide by its 1978 legal opinion that Jewish settlements in the West Bank are illegal. “The establishment of Israeli civilian settlements in the West Bank is not, per se, inconsistent with international law,” he said. The United States has always accepted the argument that the settlements violate the Geneva Conventions and are, in any case, an obstacle to peace. Pompeo, increasingly embroiled in Trump’s impeachment hearings, seemed more concerned with handing Netanyahu a vote of confidence, in spite of the Prime Minister’s own legal woes.

There are ways out of this crisis, though it’s hard to see how any of them will be taken unless Israeli democrats can mobilize public opinion, which remains sharply divided. A recent poll revealed that slightly fewer than half of respondents think Netanyahu should resign because of the charges pending against him. That’s more than the proportion opposed to or ambivalent about a resignation. The country’s political divide is, in part, geographic. Anti-Netanyahu forces are concentrated in affluent Tel Aviv and along the Mediterranean coast, and pro-Netanyahu forces are focussed in poorer areas—Jerusalem, the settlements, and peripheral towns—and resent the coastal élites about as much as they revere Netanyahu.

The immediate question is how senior Likud leaders will respond. The former Education Minister Gideon Sa’ar has called for a leadership primary and announced that he would run. But others, still cowed by Netanyahu, or just afraid of alienating the increasingly populist rank and file when a primary eventually does come, have argued against any leadership contest now. There seems little doubt that Netanyahu could win a preëmption of a primary from the party’s thirty-seven-hundred-person Central Committee. Earlier this week, he and Haim Katz, the Central Committee’s chair, said that they will advance a joint proposal to cancel a primary in the event of a third general election.

Reports have circulated that Netanyahu would resign in exchange for a Presidential pardon. But this seems an underestimation of the crisis he has precipitated. No one knows what might happen if Netanyahu remains the head of Likud and wins a new election, and the President, reinforced by the courts, refuses to grant an indicted member of Knesset the mandate to form a government. Nor is it known what might happen if another election produces a deadlock or a Blue and White coalition with the Joint List, and Netanyahu supporters take to the streets. The good news, perhaps, is that Tel Aviv’s business leaders and Israel’s police and security establishment—now identified with Blue and White—will also have their say.

Given the superficial similarities—the nationalist demagogy, the legal investigations, the defiance, the incumbent party’s flocking behavior—the temptation to draw parallels between the democratic tests in Netanyahu’s Israel and Trump’s America may prove irresistible. But America’s democratic institutions are far more numerous, established, and dispersed than Israel’s; America’s constitution is more comprehensive than Israel’s Basic Laws, its secular standards more stipulated, its media more independent, and its enemies much farther away. What can’t happen here, as Sinclair Lewis ironically put it, can, of course, happen anywhere, but it’s more likely to happen where institutional resistance is demonstrably more fragile. As ideals, “Jewish” and “democratic” were always vaguely in tension. Netanyahu’s gambit to stay out of court risks turning these into rallying points for confrontation.

 

How White Evangelicals Sold Their Soul to Donald Trump To Bring About Armageddon

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Israel Wants Palestine’s Land, but Not Its People

Mr. Netanyahu only confirmed an unspoken truth. And yet something has changed.

RAMALLAH, West Bank — Last week, ahead of the parliamentary elections in Israel this Tuesday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu promised that if re-elected, he would annex up to one-third of the occupied West Bank.

His announcement prompted widespread international condemnation. But for most Palestinians such declarations mean nothing. We’ve heard many statements of support over the years, and nothing ever changes. Cynicism is widespread; by now, many of us would prefer straight talk. As Gideon Levy, a columnist for Haaretz, wrote recently, referring to Mr. Netanyahu’s plan: “Let him turn the reality in this territory into a political reality, without hiding it any longer. The time has come for truth.”

Israel already is reaping all the benefits of annexation in the West Bank, and without having to bear any responsibility for the welfare of the Palestinians living here.

Mr. Netanyahu made this promise, on the eve of an election, only to please his right-wing supporters. Formal annexation won’t bring about any real change or extra benefits for the Israelis who live in the occupied areas. For all intents and purposes, the Israeli government already treats them as though they were living in Israel proper (extending Israeli law to them), and gives them perks (cheap mortgages and tax relief).

That’s one reason that many Palestinians I know have come to believe in a one-state solution: After all, with so many Israeli settlements in the West Bank by now, a two-state solution would be impossible to implement. That’s not to say, however, that many Palestinians welcome Mr. Netanyahu’s formal annexation plan as a step forward toward that goal.

Israel has always wanted this land — without its people. And the territory Mr. Netanyahu is promising to annex is sparsely populated with Palestinians. Most Palestinians living in the areas slated for annexation have already lost their land and they would not get it back. They would simply be condemned to remaining laborers in the service of Israeli usurpers.

But Mr. Netanyahu’s move would, at least, have the virtue of being clarifying: If implemented, it would confirm the demise of the 1993 Oslo Accords — a development that many Palestinians would welcome because they have been disappointed by the agreement. Under the accords, the permanent status of the territories in the West Bank was to be negotiated between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization; outright annexation, as Mr. Netanyahu is now proposing, would be a clear violation.

For a time, the agreement was expected to bring about a negotiated peace between the two sides and freedom for the Palestinians. Instead, over the years it has enabled Israel to keep exploiting Palestinians economically, control much of their resources and exercise total dominion over their borders.

Mr. Netanyahu was an avowed opponent of the Oslo Accords when he was in the political opposition, before 1996, the year he first became prime minister. By now, after his various stints as Israel’s leader, he can claim credit among his supporters for having shrewdly managed the occupation of the West Bank until the time he could fully annex the territory. He furthered this goal with his unfettered encouragement of more and more Jewish settlements being built in the West Bank.

Palestinians have little interest in the elections in Israel this week. I’m not sure if that’s the result of their experience of living under an occupation that has morphed into ravenous colonial rule or of the economic hardships they suffer. Either way, I think few Palestinians believe that it will make much difference to them who is elected. None of the candidates is expressing a clear position on the future of Israeli-Palestinian relations; those simply are not on the campaign agenda. I wrote nearly the same thing half a year ago, before the previous election.

What does stand out is the ever-growing discrepancy in power between Israel and the Palestinians. When Mr. Netanyahu declares that he will annex about one-third of the West Bank, everyone knows he has the power to do so. When Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian Authority, declares that he will cancel the divisions of the West Bank created by the Oslo Accords — into so-called Areas A, B and C — which gave Israel power over more than 60 percent of the area, everyone knows he is powerless to implement that announcement.

Israeli flags in front of an Israeli settlement on the southern outskirts of the West Bank city of Bethlehem.
CreditThomas Coex/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Worse, it is possible that Mr. Netanyahu is shrewd enough to carry out his promise of annexation and then manage to weather all the criticism and the consequences. He would probably justify the measure as being necessary for the defense of his country: He recently said to his voters in a Facebook post that Arabs “want to annihilate us all — women, children and men.” (Facebook then temporarily suspended some features of the account, as a penalty for violating the company’s hate-speech policy.) This hardly augurs well for the prospect of peace between our two nations if Mr. Netanyahu is re-elected.

Then again, it’s not like his main opponent, Benny Gantz, a former military chief, is better disposed toward us Palestinians. Short of being a Saudi billionaire, Mr. Gantz said last week, “the best place to be an Arab in the Middle East is in Israel” — as though Palestinians in Israel were treated like Israelis’ equals. “And the second-best place to be an Arab in the Middle East is the West Bank.” As though Palestinians — or anyone — could be happy living under foreign occupation for half a century. How deep can denial go?

Mr. Netanyahu is shameless. Mr. Gantz is blind. Palestinians see no prospect in this election. How could they?

The One Thing No Israeli Wants to Discuss

The decisive factor in next week’s election — and the reason for Benjamin Netanyahu’s durability — is a repressed memory.

JERUSALEM — When trying to understand Israel’s election on Sept. 17, the second in the space of six months, you can easily get lost in the details — corruption charges, coalition wrangling, bickering between left and right. But the best explainer might be a small film that you’re unlikely to see about something that people here prefer not to discuss.

The opening scene of “Born in Jerusalem and Still Alive,” which just won the prize for best first feature at the Jerusalem Film Festival, catches the main character grimacing as he overhears a glib tour guide. When she describes downtown Jerusalem to her group as “beautiful,” the “center of night life and food for the young generation,” Ronen, an earnest man in his late 30s, interrupts.

“Don’t believe her,” he tells the tourists in Hebrew-accented English. “You see this market? Fifteen years ago it was a war zone. Next to my high school there was a terror attack. Next to the university there was a terror attack. First time I made sex — terror attack.” One of the tourists sidles over, interested. “Yes,” Ronen tells her, “we had to stop.”

No single episode has shaped Israel’s population and politics like the wave of suicide bombings perpetrated by Palestinians in the first years of the 21st century. Much of what you see here in 2019 is the aftermath of that time, and every election since has been held in its shadow. The attacks, which killed hundreds of Israeli civilians, ended hopes for a negotiated peace and destroyed the left, which was in power when the wave began. Any sympathy that the Israeli majority had toward Palestinians evaporated.

More than any other single development, that period explains the durability of Benjamin Netanyahu, which outsiders sometimes struggle to understand. Simply put, in the decade before Mr. Netanyahu came to power in 2009, the fear of death accompanied us in public places. There was a chance your child could be blown up on the bus home from school. In the decade since, that has ceased to be the case. Next to that fact, all other issues pale. Whatever credit the prime minister really deserves for the change, for many voters it’s a good enough reason to keep him in power on Sept. 17.

Given the centrality of those years, it’s striking how seldom they actually come up in conversation. Along Jaffa Road, the hardest-hit street (and the setting for “Born in Jerusalem”), the traces have become nearly invisible. The Sbarro pizzeria where in 2001 a Palestinian suicide bomber killed 15 people, including seven children and a pregnant woman, is now a bakery with a different name. It’s a few paces from where I’m writing these lines, and it’s full of customers, many of whom probably don’t know what happened there.

That’s what “Born in Jerusalem” is about. Not politics, but the repression of personal memory that has allowed us to move on while leaving an unsettling sense of missing time.

The Jaffa Road pizzeria where 15 people were killed by a Palestinian suicide bomber in 2001. It’s a bakery today.
CreditPeter Dejong/Associated Press

In another scene in the film, Ronen and his love interest, a Jerusalemite named Asia, discuss those years, which she can call only “the time of the attacks.” It allows him to point out the period’s strangest feature, which is that it doesn’t have a name. The Palestinians called it the “second intifada,” and Israelis euphemized it as “the situation.”

It isn’t officially considered a war, even though it killed more Israelis than the Six-Day War of 1967. And no one can say exactly when it began or ended. The attacks picked up in the mid-1990s, as Israel pursued a peace deal and ceded land, but the worst came between 2000 and 2004. Though other forms of violence persist, the last Israeli fatality in a Palestinian suicide bombing was in 2008.

This repression of memory has helped the Palestinian leadership pretend that none of it ever happened, and few of the foreign journalists covering the country right now were here at the time. Why are moderate Israelis afraid to pull out of the West Bank? Why has the once-dominant left become a meager parliamentary remnant? Why is there a separation barrier? Why is the word “peace” pronounced with sarcasm while the word “security” carries a kind of supernatural weight? If you weren’t in Israel then and can’t access the national subconscious now, the answer will be elusive.

The film’s Ronen is the alter ego of Yossi Atia, 39, who plays him and wrote and co-directed the film. Mr. Atia, like me, lived through those years in Jerusalem as a college student. His character can’t bear the silence, or the feeling that he’s crazy for remembering, so he starts leading sightseeing tours of his own in the heart of the city: the Sbarro pizzeria, the place where two bombers exploded together near Zion Square, the vegetable market that got hit again and again.

He hands tourists old Nokia cellphones and has them simulate one of the period’s key rituals: the calls we used to make after attacks to tell our families we were O.K. It’s unclear if this is meant as education for the people he’s showing around, or therapy for him. He explains the odd social calculations that would follow an attack: If eight people, say, had just been killed on a bus, could you go out with a friend for a drink that evening? (Yes.) What if it was 12 people in a cafe? Could you go on a date? (No.) Ronen has an actual chart.

I remember those quandaries of terror etiquette, just as I remember standing at a bus stop when I heard a suicide bomber blow himself up and murder 11 people one street over, at Café Moment. My mother passed through the Nahariya train station right before a suicide bomber struck there, and my sister was in a cafeteria at the Hebrew University campus when Palestinians blew up a different cafeteria. I’ve got many more memories like that, all of them standard for the time.

When I spoke to Mr. Atia, he said he thought Israelis avoid the subject for an obvious reason: It’s too awful. Because the carnage wasn’t on a distant battlefield or limited to soldiers, the experience encompassed the whole society, and you don’t forget images or fear like that even if you’ve forced it all down to the murkiest layers of your brain. “It wasn’t a military war, it was a civil war, and the victims were civilians,” he said. His character, Ronen, wants to talk about it, and that makes him strange: “No one wants to listen.”

Mr. Atia’s movie doesn’t trade in any discernible anger at the Palestinians or anyone else, even when Ronen demonstrates how the Sbarro bomber rigged his explosives inside a guitar case. The approach is a kind of light surrealism. The closest thing to political comment comes when he points out that the memorial plaques from the bombings of the 1990s, the years of the peace process, followed the victims’ names with the traditional Jewish phrase “May their memories be blessed.” By the early aughts it had changed to a different phrase drawn from tradition: “May God avenge their blood.”

But he knows they happened, and so does the Israeli electorate. As a psychiatrist might tell us, the deeper something is repressed, the more power it exerts. So when Mr. Netanyahu declares in an election ad that “in the stormy Mideastern sea we’ve proven that we can keep Israel an island of stability and safety,” we all know what he means, even if we don’t vote for him. That’s his strongest card, and if he wins, that will be why. The scenario we’re afraid of is clear even if it doesn’t have a name. It doesn’t need one.