The Netanyahu Obsession

On Tuesday night, one of the most sordid episodes in the annals of Israeli political history reached a turning point: The police recommended indictments against Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu on charges of bribery, fraud and breach of public trust.

That an incumbent prime minister should be accused of such things is in itself a source of embarrassment to the state of Israel. But the means by which this was arrived at compounds the shame and humiliation many times over.

It was the culmination of 14 months of investigations, leaks and an incessant, media-driven clamor on the left for Mr. Netanyahu’s resignation. Hardly a day went by without another disclosure of supposedly confidential questioning of witnesses making headlines in Israeli media, endless ruminations over the price of the cigars he received, the brand of champagne, lurid tales of his wife’s alleged mistreatment of household employees, scenes of Lahav 433 special investigative unit vehicles pulling up at the prime minister’s residence. Who was next to be questioned by police, for how many hours, and not for the first time, but for the second, third or fourth time, endless speculation about whether he would resign if indicted.

All this vied with news coverage of affairs of state, which in Israel all-too-often are of a life-and-death nature, such as the threat of war with Hezbollah and Hamas, the growing entrenchment of Iran in Syria, terror attacks and attempted attacks literally on a daily basis. As much news time, if not more, was devoted to Netanyahu’s meetings with police detectives as with his meetings with U.S. President Donald Trump, Russian President Vladimir Putin, Indian Prime Minister Narenda Modi and other world leaders.

No one living in Israel, even people who do not normally follow the news closely, could escape the obsession with “Case 1000” and “Case 2000.” But what must it have been like for the Netanyahus?

In his response broadcast on Tuesday night, the prime minister said what it was like: “They have brutally attacked my wife and children to hurt me…to topple my government.”

One does not have to be a friend of Mr. Netanyahu or a Likud voter to appreciate the ordeal. Even decades in the notoriously brutal field of Israeli politics, which hardens its participants to every manner of verbal attack and subterfuge, cannot inoculate a human being against such an onslaught. And in the event indictments are not filed, or he is acquitted in a trial, all of it will have been for naught.

But that’s only on a personal level. Under the circumstances, one wonders how the prime minister was able to carry on with his official duties. Those who claim to seek Mr. Netanyahu’s removal from office for the good of the country have done everything in their power to make it impossible for him to govern. That it was the prime minister’s ouster and not the national interest they had at heart should be obvious.

And after 14 months of digging, what did the investigators dig up? Yair Lapid!

The same Lapid who, according to the polls, is the leading contender for Mr. Netanyahu’s job. Lapid, who has for the past three years been angling to replace him, has been recruited as a key witness for the state, ready to give testimony that will help convict him and compel his resignation. And clear the way for Yair Lapid to be prime minister.

However, the emergence of Lapid as a state’s witness may actually work to Netanyahu’s advantage. For the testimony he gives will lack credibility and could crucially weaken the case against him.

The events of Tuesday are far from the end of the story. Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit will now commence reviewing the evidence in order to determine whether, as the police claim, there is a sufficient basis to file an indictment. That process will take several months. If there is a trial, that, too, will take months.

While the Mr. Netanyahu saga is a unique case, the behavior of the police was not at all unique. Public officials and ordinary citizens alike are at the mercy of open-ended investigations that can drag on for years, and often destroy the reputations and ruin the lives of the suspects, whether they are in the end found guilty of anything or not.

According to the State Attorney’s Office, usually they are not. Out of 350,000 cases, only 30,000 ever reach the SAO. Of those, police recommend closure of 12,000. Out of the 18,000 in which indictment is recommended, 14,000 are rejected by prosecutors, leaving 4,000 which find their way eventually to court. That means 80 percent of the time these police investigations amount to nothing. Nothing, that is, but needless humiliation and suffering for thousands of people.

Regardless of the fate of PM Netanyahu, national attention has been focused on an appalling situation. No one can expect perfection in law enforcement. It’s the job of the police to investigate suspicions of crime, and impossible to guarantee that only the guilty will be recommended for indictment. But reforms are needed to rein in the Israeli justice, and the sooner the better.

In the meantime, we continue to say the brachah, with renewed feeling, “hashivah shofteinu k’varishonah u’vyoatzeinu kvatchilah” — restore our judges as in earliest times, and our counselors as at first.

For only then will true justice exist.