In the Approaching Last Act, Netanyahu Is Disgraced—or Israel Is

Oded Balilty/AP Photo

People walk by election campaign billboards showing Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, alongside the Blue and White Party leaders, from left to right, Moshe Yaalon, Benny Gantz, Yair Lapid and Gabi Ashkenazi, in Tel Aviv, Israel. 

The tragical history of Benjamin Netanyahu may be reaching its denouement. The questions is what will lie shattered on the stage in the final act—Netanyahu's ambition to be king, or Israel as a democracy.

That may sound too Shakespearian for our age of tweets, horse-race reporting, and constant irony. Shakespeare lived 400 years ago, and isn't around today to write the histories of our rulers with the tawdry grandeur they deserve. Still, if we lesser beings can't report in iambic pentameter, we must at least pay attention the grand arc of political stories.

In the first act of Netanyahu's drama, he was a young man. The second son of a right-wing Zionist historian, he'd spent his early years alternating between Israel and the United States. It seemed he'd settled on the latter country. He had an MBA and a promising business career; he'd changed his name to Ben Nitay to make it easier for Americans to pronounce; he'd divorced the Israeli wife of his youth and remarried in the States. In a slightly different world, he would now be a hedge-fund multimillionaire, smoking very expensive cigars and donating to Donald Trump's endless campaign.

His older brother Yonatan, the commander of Israel's most elite commando unit, looked like the one destined for a political career. Then Yonatan died in the legendary Entebbe raid. 

So the next act began: Whether because of duty, ambition or his father's command, Benjamin Netanyahu returned to Israel and entered politics. He divorced and eventually married again, this time to a woman whose ambitions for him may have exceeded even his own. His glibness was a thin veneer on his rigid commitment to the Whole Land of Israel. That translates as never giving up occupied territory. He treated those who supported peace through compromise with the Palestinians as traitors. Meanwhile his political allies kept turning into opponents, feeding his obsession with treachery.

In the last couple of years—call this the third act—he was at the height of power. He'd driven nearly all critics and rivals from his Likud Party. The Palestinians were divided. The Israeli left mostly avoided talking about peace or a two-state agreement. The new president in Washington didn't criticize West Bank settlements. Instead, his minions hinted at a “peace deal” that would bury the two-state idea.

Yet there was a second plotline: As Netanyahu's power rose, so did his appetites, hubris, and sense of entitlement. In 1995, before he was first elected prime minister, a Jerusalem newspaper reported that he and his wife were known all over town for not paying at restaurants. After his first term of office, a corruption investigation ended without charges. In recent years, he was getting regular deliveries of expensive cigars and pink champagne (the latter for his wife) from a businessman. He allegedly gave regulatory favors to another tycoon in exchange for flattering articles about himself and his family at a major news site.

This year the two plotlines reached a climax almost at the same time. In the midst of an election campaign, Israel's attorney general announced that Netanyahu was likely to be indicted in three separate corruption cases. Weeks later, he won re-election anyway. 

He is at his nadir and zenith.

Now, as he negotiates with smaller parties to form a new government, Netanyahu is preparing two pieces of legislation. One would restore a discredited system of parliamentary immunity. As reported, the bill would give lawmakers immunity from prosecution that could only be removed in a two-step process: first a vote in a key parliamentary committee, then in the full house. The committee is always dominated by the ruling coalition, promising automatic protection for Netanyahu. This week he reportedly dictated the spin in a meeting with Likud cabinet ministers: Making him immune to prosecution would allow him to be a “full-time prime minister,” without the distraction of a trial. (For public consumption, meanwhile, Netanyahu denies that the immunity law is on the table in coalition negotiations. This is not a denial that he intends to push the law through.)

The second bill would be a revolution in Israel's half-written constitutional system: It would allow parliament to override decisions of the Supreme Court, and thereby cripple judicial review of laws and government actions. For years, parts of the political right have dreamed of an override. For the ultra-Orthodox parties, it's a way to keep the court from interfering with religious laws. For others on the right, it's a way of overcoming court decisions that have protected refugees or interfered with West Bank settlement. In the past, just enough members of Netanyahu's coalitions have been committed to constitutional restraint, and efforts to enact an override provision failed.

But the policy goal has now completely merged with Netanyahu's personal interest. It's very possible that the Supreme Court would overturn a new immunity law on the grounds that it was crafted to protect Netanyahu personally, a violation of equality before the law. He wants parliament to be able to override the court in order to keep himself safe from prosecution. Once enacted, the override will also leave human rights at the mercy of the parliamentary majority.

The days and weeks ahead are the penultimate act of the Netanyahu drama. The Likud's last remaining outspoken critic of the prime minister, Gideon Saar, said in a television interview that the immunity law would result in “no benefit and maximum damage.” But Saar didn't commit to voting against the bill. Outgoing Finance Minister Moshe Kahalon played the role in the last coalition of the old-fashioned right-winger still committed to constitutional restraints. But his Kulanu party shrank in April's election, and with it his political clout and very possibly his will power. There are a few other potential opponents on the right to Netanyahu's gambits. The next turn of the story depends on whether any of them still has a backbone or a conscience.

Right now, it seems that the weeks ahead will lead to one of two outcomes. In one, the laws designed to save Netanyahu stall or are defeated. In that case, there's a very strong chance that the last act will begin with Netanyahu standing trial and end with him leaving office in disgrace. 

In the other ending, the bills pass. Netanyahu will stay in power, and will be much closer to authoritarian rule. The rule of law will be mortally wounded. 

Neither outcome is inevitable. There are no spoilers in real life, and many unexpected endings. But this play has become frightening, and at the end it won't be possible just to fold one's program and walk out of the theater into sunlight. 

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