By any objective standard, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s trip to Washington last week was a stunning success. US President Donald Trump and first lady Melania Trump greeted the premier and his wife, Sara, as old friends. The substantive talks Netanyahu held with Trump on Iran and a host of other key issues were extraordinarily positive.
Then of course, there was the rock-star welcome Netanyahu received at the AIPAC conference.
If Israelis were astounded by the royal treatment Netanyahu received during his visit to India last year, his visit to Washington made clear that what happened in India was no fluke. He is quite clearly one of the most well-regarded statesmen in the world.
Then again, most Israelis could be excused for having little idea either that Netanyahu was treated like a king in India or that he was treated like a second coming of Winston Churchill in the US.
The Israeli media barely covered his trip to India. As for his trip to the US, the media presented everything Netanyahu said and did in the context of the police’s obsessive-compulsive criminal probes of Netanyahu.
The political crisis over the haredi draft law, which this week brought the Knesset to the brink of dissolution and Israel to a new general election, was entirely the result of the joint efforts of police investigators and the media to delegitimize Netanyahu as a leader and criminalize him as a person.
Several ministers from parties in Netanyahu’s coalition, together with the media, presented Netanyahu’s handling of the crisis as self-serving.
Netanyahu, the media and his coalition partners alleged, was putting his personal interest above the national interest. Netanyahu, they insisted, was allowing a minor crisis (ostensibly about whether or not a bill would pass that sets out draft quotas for haredi youths before the annual budget bill went through the Knesset), to become a major crisis that would bring down the government. He was doing so, they said, because he wanted an early election to strengthen his position vis-a-vis the police investigators.
In other words they said, Netanyahu wanted to plunge Israel into political uncertainty for months on end, at the cost of billions of shekels, just to win another election.
Unlike the egotistical premier, the ministers and media said, Netanyahu’s coalition partners worked around the clock to solve the crisis without him and force him to accept the compromise they hammered out. Unlike Netanyahu, they sneered, they put the national interest first.
“We know the public doesn’t want an election. And we’re serving the public,” they declared.
The media delightedly agreed.
Those denunciations of Netanyahu were little more than spin.
In reality, the public has an interest in renewing the government’s mandate. Working together, the police and the media have used the probes against Netanyahu to destabilize the government and delegitimize its power.
Like their borderline delusional coverage of Netanyahu’s trip to the US, the media present every move made by every government minister from every party in the coalition in the context of the police probes and the prospects for an early election.
In this framework, everything the government does is suspect. The fact that the police have demonstrated no credible proof of their claims that Netanyahu accepted bribes in any of their leaks or official statements regarding any of their multiple probes is of no consequence. As far as the major radio, television and print media are concerned, Netanyahu is a crook.
And since the media portray Netanyahu as a crook, everything he says and does and everything his ministers say and do is presented against the backdrop of that specious, unsupported and certainly unproven conclusion.
Under the circumstances, the need for a new mandate is self-evident. The police and media insist that the mandate the government received is no longer legitimate. The public is the source of the government’s power. So the public has to express its views on the government in one way or another.
In other words, to the extent Netanyahu wanted to disband the Knesset and announce an election this week, he was right to feel the way he did.
He wasn’t being egotistical. The public’s interest is harmed by the delegitimization of its government.
Broadly speaking there are three ways the public can make its position known.
First, its elected representatives can assert it.
Netanyahu’s coalition members could issue a declaration supporting him. The 67 members of Knesset and the ministers from the parties in the governing coalition can put out a declaration announcing that as they do in all of their endeavors, with everything related to the police probes of Netanyahu, they intend to respect the rule of law.
Since under Basic Law: The Government, a prime minister is only expected to resign from office if he receives a final judgment convicting him of committing crimes, the coalition members could assert that in conformance with the rule of law, they expect Netanyahu to serve out his term and will support him through the end of the term.
A statement along these lines from the ministers and lawmakers in the coalition would constitute a renewed mandate for Netanyahu and the government to govern. It would send the message that in Israel the public chooses its leader.
The police and even the attorney-general cannot replace the public.
For whatever reason, to date, no such declaration has been produced. Which left Netanyahu with two other options this week.
First, he could have brought down his government, disbanded the Knesset and called an election in June. Since the public has an interest in having a legitimate government and since the media and the police are calling the legitimacy of the government into question, going to an election would serve the public’s interest. Certainly, elections are the most direct way to find out if the public agrees with the police and the media commentators and thinks Netanyahu should go, or if the public wants him to stay on and continue leading the country.
While elections are the most direct way to get a mandate, the commentators and ministers are right that elections are an extreme step. They cost a lot of money. What’s more, war can break out at any moment with Hezbollah-controlled Lebanon. Israel would be worse off if an interim government was leading it in time of war.
And this brings us to the final way a government can renew its mandate. It’s what happened this week.
Two things happened this week.
First, news organizations had pollsters sk the public a few key questions.
The pollsters asked whether the public wanted an early election. Seventy percent said no. If the public thought the police and media were right, and that Netanyahu should be thrown out of office, the polls would have received opposite results. Everyone would have wanted an election.
The public was then asked whom it supported for prime minister. Netanyahu out-polled his closest rival – media and police favorite Yesh Atid Party leader Yair Lapid – 3 to 1. If the public agreed with the media and the police, which both support Lapid, the former television talk show host, then the results would have reflected that agreement.
Finally, the pollsters asked which party the public intended to vote for in the next election. The Likud under Netanyahu gained three Knesset seats. Yesh Atid lost two.
The implications, again, are self-evident. The public wants Netanyahu to keep leading the country.
But a poll taken on any given day isn’t a mandate.
Which brings us to the second thing that happened this week. Both the opposition parties and every coalition member other than the Likud made clear that they completely opposed an election.
This rare unanimity demonstrated clearly that the political world is certain the public supports Netanyahu and wants him to continue in office.
Taken together, the polls and the wall-to-wall opposition to an election among coalition and opposition parties alike provided Netanyahu and the government with a renewed mandate to govern.
This then brings us back to the investigations that triggered the coalition crisis and fomented Netanyahu’s need for a new mandate. From the police leaks over the past couple of weeks it is fairly clear that investigators have hit the wall.
They recommended that Netanyahu be indicted for accepting bribes in Cases 1000 and 2000 and the public yawned and rolled its eyes. The attorney-general sent them back to get real evidence.
Case 3000 is so weak the police can’t even figure out how to begin investigating Netanyahu for anything.
As for Case 4000, the latest leaks suggest the police have nothing whatsoever to accuse Netanyahu of having done. The notion that he would give preferential treatment to telecommunications giant Bezeq because Bezeq’s owner Shaul Elovitch had Walla website reporters write a couple of nice articles about him and his wife is absurd on its face. And this week the police leaked their new smoking gun: Netanyahu allegedly tried to convince his billionaire friends to start an Israeli version of Fox News.
To which his voters reply: Good for him!
That latest leak indicates two things. First, again, the police have no proof that Netanyahu committed any wrongdoing. And second, the police is completely cut off from the public. Netanyahu has run for prime minister four times and won every race by running against the media. If the public didn’t share his conviction that the media are impossibly biased, he would either have lost the elections or run on a different platform. The fact that the police think that the public will turn against Netanyahu because he tried to get fair media coverage is ridiculous.
But who knows? Maybe the police will pull a rabbit out a hat and prove something truly terrible.
In the meantime, Netanyahu received a new mandate to lead the country from the public this week. So whatever happens with the investigations, he and his ministers can credibly and comfortably lead the country until November 2019.