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After the Fall—Comes the Reckoning

epicentermedia.com

All Israeli governments fall sooner or later, to paraphrase the opening line of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, but each government’s fall is unique in its own special way. Yet even according to this maxim, the fall of the current government stands out as especially unusual, disturbing, and telling. Here’s why:

To begin with, this governing coalition, which was formed just over a year ago, was unusual not only in Israel but throughout the democratic world. After two years with four elections but without a decisive win for the left, right, or center, and with Netanyahu and his Likud still very much a threat to the rule of law—his day in a Jerusalem court on charges of bribery, fraud, and breach-of-trust was about to begin—and Israel’s democracy teetering after some twelve years as prime minister. But then eight small parties—I repeat, eight!—got together and were able to form a unity coalition of 61 Knesset 1 members.

Quite the miracle. In this governing coalition, Yair Lapid (the driving force and now a caretaker PM) and his Yesh Atid party had 17 Members, a center-left party of liberal Tel Avivians opposed mightily to Netanyahu and fighting to retain Israel’s fragile democracy. He Partnered with Naftali Bennet, whose party Yemina, a right of Likud party of settlements and settlers, had only 7 members, with one already on his way out. There were parties from the very left, like Meretz and Labor, and the central party of Defense Minister Benny Gantz. And to add a cherry to that cake: An Arab Muslin party for the first time in Israel’s history. No Jewish religious party, though: also a first. But a religious Prime Minister. A first too.

It was expected, and predicted—by many observers, including yours truly—that this government won’t last for long. Indeed, it lasted about a year. In that year its major accomplishment was its “survival.” The fact that it had managed to stay in power, and take care of business—the remains of the coronavirus pandemic, economic issues, passing a budget for the first time in three years, and no war with Hamas in Gaza. So not only did they kick Netanyahu out of office, but enabled the court proceeding against him to begin and continue, which was another important achievement.

But it was not enough. The cracks became fissions. Some rats began to escape the sinking ship. And yet, as pointed above, the most telling thing—not just as to the fall of this government, but in a certain way for Israel and its conflict with Palestine as a whole—was why and how this government fell. Let me try to explain, especially for those of you who don’t keep a close tab on the ins and outs of Israel’s politics since this issue may come back to haunt other governments, and maybe the future of Israel as a democratic Jewish state.

There is a law in Israel, the “Emergency Regulations for Judea and Samaria” (it includes also the Jordan Valley), which was enacted not long after the Six-day War of 1967 by the Labor party in power at the time. Basically, it established two sets of legal systems (both illegal according to the Geneva Convention): one for Israelis living in the occupied territories, who will live under Israeli civil laws, and one for the Arab citizens of the West Bank, who will be ruled by the occupying Israeli army. Separating Jews from the Arabs was the idea, you get the picture. These laws, “Emergency Regulations,” stayed in effect since then, enshrining the occupation into existence. No wonder it was nicknamed the “Settlers Law.” Make sense, doesn’t it? Though others refer to it as the “Apartheid Law.” Take your pick.

Since then, every Israeli government had automatically—with some adjustments and tightening of the screw—renewed this law in the Knesset when it expired, I believe every five years. And yet—hold on to your seat—when the law was about to be renewed now, in this government with a past settler as its Prime Minister, the opposition—led by who else but Netanyahu—refused to support it. Why? Not because they opposed it. Couldn’t be further from the truth. But because they realized that this is their best chance of toppling the government. Successful, as it were, due to a couple of defections of members in the coalition.

In other words: sheer brutal politics overtook substance and common sense. And so a law representing the worst of Israel’s illegal occupation of the West Bank, agreed upon by the vast majority of the Knesset members, had failed to pass in order to bring down the government and enforce fifth elections in the space of three and a half years. What’s more, once—and if—a new government is in power, certainly if it’s Netanyahu’s Likud, the law will be the first to pass in a heartbeat. Not to be believed, if it wasn’t true.

In a way, there is some justice in all of it. A law that preserved and protected the unlawful occupation, creating a semi-Apartheid state, and symbolizing all of Israel’s problems with the Palestinians—its inability and unwillingness to make peace by establishing a two-state solution—is also forcing on the Israeli citizens a Perpetuum mobile of unending elections. And in the process, unsettling the Israeli democracy. If the latest polls are to be believed—and why not, unlike here in America they were pretty accurate in the latest rounds of the Israeli elections—while Netanyahu’s win is secured, as far as winning the largest share of Knesset members, his ability to form a governing coalition hasn’t improved that much.

And so it goes. Only time would tell, of course, since anything can happen. Pardon those previous clichés, yet this is where Israel finds itself now. Its major existential threat—no, not that of Iran’s nuclear capability, or Hamas in the south and Hezbollah in the north, but—the future of Israel as a democratic Jewish state, is facing another major challenge.

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Moral Turpitude: Who, and What Killed Netanyahu’s Plea Deal?

jewishjournal.com

As I write this column, it seems clear that Benjamin Netanyahu has rejected the plea deal with Israel’s Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit, who’s about to retire at the end of this month. It is also clear that the deal was rejected because of the ‘Moral Turpitude’ clause, which stipulated that Netanyahu was to admit to it, and as a result will resign from his membership in the Knesset, from leading the Likud party, and retire too from the political arena for seven years. But why? It was so close?

Some reporters ‘in the know’ reported that it was ultimately Sara Netanyahu, his wife, who’d put the kibosh on that deal. That Netanyahu had committed a ‘Moral Turpitude’ while in office as Prime Minister for so many years was not in doubt. That’s what surely happens when you accumulate that much power, for so long a time, and begin to see yourself as the incarnation of ‘King David,’ urged on by a conniving wife, and a right-wing extremist son. You are becoming all-powerful, and all-power is essentially corrupt. To admit to ‘Moral Turpitude,’ however, and worse to recuse yourself from political life—while you are still, and by far, the most popular leader in Israel—is another matter altogether.

Let’s remind ourselves briefly what, as indeed I was writing about here a number of times before, Netanyahu is accused of: Fraud, breach of trust and bribery. Not small a change. Which he denies, of course, of ever having or committed. He has accused AG Mendelblit, the Police and prosecutors of corruption and all kind of other accusations. But against all odds and many delays, his trial has commenced and continued unabated. It so happened because in three consecutive elections Netanyahu had failed to form a majority government, and thereafter kill the trial. In the government he was finally able to form, with Blue and White’s Gantz, he was forced to accept that the trial will go on.

Again, as predicted in this blog not once (based on minimal legalistic knowledge), the trial not only materialized but has proved much more problematic, and potentially damaging to Netanyahu than he and his fervent supporters had thought possible. A number of witnesses had produced damaging evidence, causing shaking and headaches for Netanyahu’s defense. So much so that it was Netanyahu himself who began hearing the squeaking iron gates of jail being open, welcoming him in. As a result, he turned to former Supreme Court President Aharon Barak, probably the most respected Judge still in the land, to facilitate the plead deal.

So Barak turned to Mendelblit, who began the process. It was reported also that during that process, he had offered Netanyahu initially only two years’ absence from political life, which was much easier for Netanyahu to accept. However, prosecutors and legal minds involved had raised hell about it. And rightly so. With all due respect to AG Mendelblit and all that he has done to bring the trial forward, it is well worth remembering that he has served in Netanyahu‘s government, and was regarded as a close confidant for a time, if not a friend. So The “Moral Turpitude’ clause became seven years. As you know, seven years is a very symbolic, significant number in the bible and Jewish tradition and history.

For a while, as has been reported in the Israeli media, the odds in favor of such a plea deal becoming a reality were very high. “In a few days.” “Early next week.” So screamed the headlines. And I have to admit that, unlike the plurality of Israelis, as a number of polls have suggested, I felt that I would welcome such a deal. As a staunch objector to Netanyahu and all that he has represented, from instigating Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination, squashing any chances of the two-state solution from becoming a reality, the continuation of the settlement endeavor, and his bro hugging of the pitiful, despotic Trump, I still saw his potential removal from Israel’s political life as more important than seeing him go to jail.

Furthermore: The government just approved an inquiry into Germany’s ‘Submarine Affair,’ in which Netanyahu can be in real ‘troubled water.’ It might generate more opportunities to put him behind closed bars. There are of course Netanyahu’s supporters, and some legal minds, who don’t see it this way, and believe the prosecution is on shaky ground. Come what may, the possibility of Netanyahu going to jail certainly exists. He knows that. But he also knows that unlike other cases in recent Israeli history—President Katsav, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert—if he is convicted and about to be locked up, it will create havoc. His supporters will raise hell, and the possibility of blood in the streets, a semi civil-war, is likely. Which, I believe, Netanyahu would welcome, both personally and politically.

And so, what killed the deal at the end was indeed the ‘Moral Turpitude’ clause, and not his wife’s orders, even if that was part of it.  Specifically, the retirement from political life for seven years, and not so much the partial admittance of guilt on his part. Like his American bro, Trump—who can also hear the gates of the legal system finally beginning to close on him—the one thing he couldn’t stand was the loss of power. Dictators need the power to sustain their wellbeing. Crimes are no big deal for them; they commit them all the time. Being out of power, however, is akin to death.

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