Timing isn’t everything, but it’s a lot. And the timing of recent action by Israel’s coalition government is more than suspicious.
On Nov. 27, the Knesset approved — on the first vote of the necessary three — new legislation that could potentially impact the ongoing, high-profile investigations into Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The new law, if it ultimately passes, is aimed to prevent the police from making a specific recommendation as to whether to indict a suspect when an investigation has ended and leave this matter to the attorney general.
Timing isn’t everything, but it’s a lot. And supporters of the new legislation would acknowledge it — of course, not on the record. However, they will say, the law is necessary and proper, and it cuts both ways. It helps these supporters that these special times — when the party in charge has an interest in passing it — also make it viable.
Indeed, they have a point, and their position raises an important question: Should a citizen be in favor of legislation he deems proper even though the timing of passing it is improper? To put it differently: Is it obligatory to oppose a law one deems necessary because of the suspicious circumstances of its passing?
If there is a reason for indictment, the new law will not save the prime minister.
For people living in the practical world, this is not an easy choice. We know from history that murky, questionable circumstances often prompt important legislation. In this case, though, one first has to accept the premise that the new legislation has merit beyond saving Netanyahu from being publically censured by the police after the investigation is over.
So, is it justified? Consider the case of Netanyahu’s chief of staff, Gil Sheffer. About a year ago, Sheffer was accused of sexual assault. The police investigated the accusation and came up with a clear recommendation: We have the evidence; Sheffer ought to be indicted. For almost a year, Sheffer walked around crowned with this wreath of thorns until a decision was made by state attorneys: There was not enough evidence to indict him — he was off the hook. But no one can compensate him for those 10 months under scrutiny.
Supporters of the new legislation will point to this case, and others, in which public humiliation over a decision by the police — who have the authority to investigate but not to indict — ended with a whimper. These supporters would like the police simply to do their job, which under the circumstances covered by this law is to investigate and hand the material to the state attorneys without recommendation.
It is thus plausible to defend this legislation on its merits. It also is not difficult to understand why Netanyahu and his political operators would see such a law as potentially beneficial for the prime minister. It can buy him time. If the police hand evidence against him to the attorney general without making any specific recommendation, the court of public opinion will have to be more patient and wait until the end of the legal process to see if the prime minister is going to stand trial.
As usual, there is a lot of political hoopla involved in the discussions surrounding this legislation. The prime minister’s associates lost all shame as they promoted this law with the urgency they should save for more crucial matters. The prime minister’s opponents refuse to acknowledge the fact that this law has reasoning and merit — beyond its highly problematic timing.
And as often happens with new legislation, too many hopes are hanging by a thin thread. If there is a reason for indictment, the new law will not save the prime minister. In fact, it will not even prevent the media and the public from getting enough information when the investigation is over to make their own determination as to whether Netanyahu should be indicted. Leaks, insinuation and speculation will be the substitute for police recommendation.
So if the law passes, Israel merely will be substituting one problematic procedure (police recommendation) for another (public speculation).
Shmuel Rosner is senior political editor. For more analysis of Israeli and international politics, visit Rosner’s Domain at jewishjournal.com/rosnersdomain.