Thursday, December 19, 2019



 Vic Rosenthal's Weekly Column


The nightmarish prospect of a third election – and worse, the campaign for the third election, will become a reality for Israelis in the next few months, culminating at the ballot boxes on March 2nd. There are several ways in which the outcome could be disastrous, and one way in which it could present a path forward out of the political swamp into which Israel has descended in the past few years, the almost-gridlock that has kept us from solving many long-standing problems.

I have to begin by talking about Binyamin Netanyahu. In my opinion, he is one of Israel’s greatest Prime Ministers, supremely competent and qualified to continue in his job – but mortally wounded, taken down by enemies who exploited his tragic flaws (we all have them) and a broken constitutional structure which does not properly provide for the separation of powers with appropriate checks and balances.

What happened to Netanyahu, destroyed by a multi-year effort to stick criminal charges to him (and to his wife, whose own personal weaknesses didn’t help), an interminable investigation accompanied by a daily barrage of leaks and innuendos gleefully reported in an almost uniformly hostile media, must never be allowed to happen again.

The fact that Netanyahu managed to accomplish anything at all in his last three years as PM – and actually he accomplished quite a lot – despite the harassment tells much about his competence. But this is no way to run a country. And no less important, the degree to which the police and state prosecutor’s office have been dragged into politics sets a dangerous precedent.

I don’t want to discuss the charges against him in detail. Some of them appear justified, although perhaps not rising to what would be called “impeachable offenses” in America; others are based on interpretations of the law that may be strained or novel. Some things were done to witnesses to force them to testify against him that were clearly improper, even criminal themselves. But whatever happens – if he goes to trial and is convicted or exonerated, or if he receives a pardon from the Knesset – he is finished in politics.

I don’t know if he will accept this, or if he will fight to the death. Probably the latter, which will add to the damage that has already been done to the country. I would like to see him get a deal which would allow him to step down in return for a pardon. But Bibi is a tragic hero, and that’s not what tragic heroes do.

Netanyahu’s Likud party will now see a primary election, in which his main opponent is Gideon Sa’ar. It’s too early to tell, but I am hoping that Sa’ar will defeat Netanyahu for the leadership of the party and the candidacy for Prime Minister. I know Bibi has been treated unjustly, and it hurts me to take a stand against him. It is to some extent a betrayal. But the nation is more important than he is.

I mentioned possible outcomes. The best one is that Gideon Sa’ar defeats Netanyahu in the primary, and gets enough seats on March 2 to form a stable government. Sa’ar is ideologically right-wing, and has promised that as PM he would extend Israeli law to the Jewish communities in Judea and Samaria, and to the Jordan Valley (the Left in Israel and America will say that he wants to “annex the West Bank”, but that is wrong).

He would also reform the judicial system in such a way as to improve the balance of powers between the Supreme Court, the Prime Minister, and the Knesset; and he would split up the job of the Legal Advisor to the Government, which now encompasses the functions of Attorney General, Chief Prosecutor, and others. One of the objectives of this reform would be to prevent abuses such as have occurred in the prosecution of Netanyahu.

But there’s more at stake than protecting the PM. The combination of the Supreme Court and the Legal Advisor have arrogated to themselves far too much power. Both are essentially appointed by the legal establishment (the PM appoints the Legal Advisor, but from a short list provided by the Bar Association), and they have stymied important initiatives of the Knesset and the government, like the arrangements to develop Israel’s natural gas reserves and attempts to deport illegal migrants.

If the opposition Blue and White Party were to form the government, that would count as a bad outcome. Blue and White’s leaders are four politicians who have no unifying ideology except a desire to replace Netanyahu. They range from the right-wing Moshe Ya’alon to the left-leaning Yair Lapid. They dislike each other, and their party has already had to work very hard to hide the sharp disagreements between them. If they did succeed in forming a government, it would either have to depend on the support of the Arab parties – leaving them open to blackmail on security issues – or somehow get the “ultra-Orthodox” Haredi parties to sit with Yair Lapid, or Avigdor Lieberman, or the extreme leftists. None of this is a recipe for stability.

A not-as-bad-but-still-not-good outcome would be if Netanyahu succeeded to hold onto the leadership of his party and managed to form a government. It would probably have a very small majority in the Knesset, making it unstable, and Netanyahu would remain preoccupied with getting a pardon from the Knesset above all. He would not be able to reform a judicial system that was prosecuting him.

Davka [just because of this], Netanyahu must be replaced. Only a new right-wing Prime Minister who is not tangled up in the legal system can turn that system upside down, as needs to be done.

Israel needs a government that can act confidently and with one voice to take advantage of the opportunities provided by a pro-Israel administration in the US, something which will not continue forever (it may need to deal with an anti-Israel one, which is a distinct possibility judging by the contenders for the Democratic nomination).

Many people have said that a third election would be no more decisive than the first two, and that the instability will just continue. But if Likud members will put their (understandable) personal loyalty to Netanyahu aside and see what is actually at stake here, it might finally break us out of the paralysis that his gripped the country in recent years.





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