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Politicians v. Judges

Next Sunday, Binyamin Netanyahu is about to make history, but not of the kind for which he wants to be remembered. The court just ordered him to appear in person at the opening of his trial on three charges of breach of trust, accepting bribes and fraud. This will be the first time in the history of the State of Israel that a prime minister will be in the dock while in office.

In order to avoid it, his legal team argued that Netanyahu does not have to appear in person, citing several, often minor, reasons. The court rejected the plea. This, then, has become the latest battle in the ongoing war between the prime minister of Israel and his right-wing supporters on one side, and the country’s judiciary on the other. The issue is really the struggle between judges and politicians in Israel, between law and political clout.

In the transition government that lasted more than 500 days and came to end a few days ago, when a potentially more permanent administration took over, the prime minister’s main champion was his justice minister Amir Ohana. Ohana, even more than his predecessor Ayelet Shaked, seemed determined to weaken, if not disable, the legal system in the land. No doubt Ohana will continue to fight on behalf of his master, now as the minister responsible for the police. (Improbable though it seems, right-wingers Shaked and her leader Naftali Bennett are currently sitting on the opposition benches in the Knesset and thus, at least temporarily, are not on Netanyahu’s side.)

Apart from the unseemly legal wrangling, we are told that demonstrations against the court and the prosecution are being planned during the Netanyahu trial. It is not clear whether these will be spontaneous or organized from on high, but, whatever the source, the prosecutors in the case have been given extra security protection, because one never knows when a mob becomes unruly.

Though a tension between the legislature (elected by the citizens) and the judiciary (the members of which are said to be appointed on merit) may be healthy, the way many right-wing politicians talk, points to efforts to abolish, or at least curtail, the rule of law in order to give those in power free rein. This is obviously a grave threat to democracy. Netanyahu’s trial may turn out to be a test case with far-reaching implications.

Whatever the outcome, I am sorry to suggest that it is likely to be bad news for us all. If the prime minister is convicted, a government crisis of enormous proportions can be expected. Dare we hope, therefore, that Netanyahu’s repeated mantra that the prosecution does not have a case is proven right? If the court ignores evidence for the sake of political stability, we will be in even bigger trouble.

Of course, Netanyahu could save the country by resigning now. The new coalition agreement stipulates that Benny Gantz will take over from Netanyahu. This is supposed to take effect in 18 months’ time. It could take effect now, but that would imply that Netanyahu takes responsibility. There is no evidence that this is likely to happen, perhaps because he believes that he and only he is our savior.

All this while (a) Iran continues to threaten Israel, (2) the Palestinian Authority once again tells the world that it will break all agreements with Israel because of Israel’s intention to annex part of the West Bank, (3) the ostensibly great friend of Israel Donald Trump may not be re-elected as US president, and (4) many European countries are turning against Israel because of its annexation plans.

Jerusalem 21.5.20                                                                                                                             Dow Marmur

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