February 27, 2020

Challenging Our Immune System

Photo by Amir Levy/Getty Images

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Jan. 1 asked the Knesset for immunity. He wants to postpone his trial on corruption charges indefinitely, as long as he is a member of the parliament. This week, members of the Knesset began to debate his request, and as expected (much like the impeachment proceedings in Washington, D.C.), this semi-legal yet highly political process quickly became a circus. 

Does Netanyahu deserve immunity? Will he get it? Will the process be completed before election day, slated for March? If you want real answers to questions that matter, tune out the rhetoric, high-pitched denunciations and condemnations, and focus on substance. We can attempt to do this by examining five dimensions that matter to this case: tactical, legal, political, personal and moral. 

Tactical: Netanyahu asked for immunity because as long as the Knesset debates immunity, Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit cannot bring Netanyahu’s case before the court. Netanyahu asked for immunity at the last minute because he doesn’t want the current Knesset to debate this matter for a simple reason: He has no majority in the Knesset and therefore can expect his request for immunity to be rejected. His opposition currently has a majority, and therefore wants to move forward, reject Netanyahu’s request and send him to face the electorate in March as a man on trial. All the detailed maneuvering that happened this week — and expected to happen in the coming weeks — can be reduced to these simple objectives of Netanyahu and his rivals.

Legal: The prime minister is permitted, by law, to ask for immunity. But there is doubt — and a debate —as to  whether the outgoing Knesset has the clout to consider his request six weeks before election day. Naturally, the opposition (backed by the legal adviser of the Knesset), says yes. Netanyahu and the Likud Party say no. Ironically, Netanyahu’s allies, who constantly criticize the court for being too interventionist and for meddling in the affairs that ought to be reserved for politicians, now want the court to intervene and halt the political process. Next time you hear them cry about the court, don’t take them too seriously.

Netanyahu is fighting for his freedom. If tried and convicted, he will go to jail.

Political: It is interesting to see how all the effort invested in this process of trying to save or oust the prime minister doesn’t change the public’s view. For now, the polls haven’t changed. So, the political calculation for both sides seems to be: do what you want. This is what your camp wants you to do. If anything is going to change the outcome of the election, it would be decisions made by the parties left and right to merge (or refrain from merging). The immunity battle runs in parallel to the political battle. It is a battle aimed at moving the political ball forward by means other than a decision by the voters. That is, at least partially, because the voters don’t seem capable of making a decision that will give enough power to one camp or the other. 

Personal: More than anything else, this is a personal matter. The prime minister is fighting for his political life (one can simultaneously want him out and appreciate his spirit of not surrendering). He is also fighting for his freedom. If tried and convicted, he will go to jail. Of course, for his rivals, this is also very personal. More than they want Likud to lose power, they want Netanyahu to lose power. They formed a party — quite successful and powerful — with the sole purpose of ending the Netanyahu era. 

Moral: Both camps have a lot to say about morality. Is it moral for an outgoing Knesset to conduct a semi-trial of the prime minister? Is it moral for the prime minister to seek refuge from the court? The answer is no in both cases, and the answer is also that it doesn’t matter in either case, because the leaders involved in this process believe that they must pay a small moral price to achieve a larger cause. Is Netanyahu aware that the morality of some of his actions is questionable? I assume he does but believes that saving Israel (from the Blue and White Party) justifies the means. Do Blue and White leaders know that their ability to have a fair process in the Knesset panel that ought to debate Netanyahu’s immunity request is nonexistent? Do they know that what they’re doing is unfair? Of course they do — but also look for the greater good as they see it: use whatever available legal means to topple the demon.

Shmuel Rosner is senior political editor. For more analysis of Israeli and international politics, visit Rosner’s Domain.