Will the ‘deep-state’ destroy democracy?

Indeed, it is perhaps the very success of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that has generated such raw rancor against him.

Professor Alan Dershowitz speaks at a conference in Tel Aviv, Dec. 11, 2016. Photo by Miriam Alster/Flash90.
Professor Alan Dershowitz speaks at a conference in Tel Aviv, Dec. 11, 2016. Photo by Miriam Alster/Flash90.
Martin Sherman
Martin Sherman
Martin Sherman spent seven years in operational capacities in the Israeli defense establishment. He is the founder of the Israel Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), a member of the Habithonistim-Israel Defense & Security Forum (IDSF) research team, and a participant in the Israel Victory Project.

The issue at the center of these investigations seems trivial against the background of the existential crises Israel is facing. … The first probe, also known as Case 1000, involves gifts of cigars and champagne Netanyahu received from close friends. … I strongly believe that the appropriate criteria for criminal prosecution have not been met in the cigar and champagne case against Netanyahu. … The other investigations (dubbed [Case] 2000 and [Case] 4000) pose even greater dangers to democratic governance and civil liberties. … In both cases, the prime minister is essentially being investigated for allegedly trying to push the media—with long histories of attacking him and his family—to be fairer …

… what we are left with is an exploration of motives … [which] are not the kinds of questions that prosecutors and police should be empowered to ask elected officials and media moguls as a part of a criminal investigation. … The relationship between politics and the media—and between politicians and publishers—is too nuanced, subtle and complex to be subject to the heavy hand of criminal law … police and prosecutors should not intrude on this complex, messy and nuanced relationship between politics and the media, except in cases of clear and unambiguous financial corruption well beyond what is alleged in the current cases … to criminalize these political differences is to endanger democracy and freedom of the press — Professor Alan Deshowitz,Voters, Not the Police or the Courts, Should Decide Netanyahu’s Future”

I disagree with Alan Dershowitz on much regarding Israel. But I found myself identifying almost completely with his analysis of the indictments (subject to a hearing) filed against Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu by Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit.

A product of politically partisan peer pressure

Of course, I am sure it is possible to devise some contorted and contrived legalistic interpretation of the acts allegedly perpetrated by Netanyahu that will impart them a stain of nefarious criminality. However, I am equally sure that such an interpretation would fly in the face of fairness and common sense—and would only serve to undermine, even more, the credibility of the Israeli legal system in the eyes of the average man-in-the-street.

Dershowitz, who, as a renowned American legal authority doesn’t really have a “dog-in-the fight” vis-à-vis the outcome of Israel’s elections or any partisan preference for either side of the pro- vs. anti-Bibi divide, is certainly not the only prominent personality to slam the assault on Netanyahu.

For example, Caroline Glick, then-prominent journalist, today a candidate for the Knesset, powerfully underscored the dubious (to be charitable) nature of the allegations against Netanyahu and the troubling double standards applied to him that they reflect.

Likewise, veteran lawyer Dr. Haim Misgav clearly conveyed how flimsy and unconvincing the charges against the prime minister are. Rather than prosecutors being “watchdogs” of the public interest, Misgav depicts them as “attack dogs” of the anti-Netanyahu circles, bent not on “eliminating wrongdoing in our midst, but removing the prime minister by any means possible.

Indeed, according to Misgav, the entire indictment is the product of the attorney general caving into peer pressure from the politically biased prosecution, and the timing of its publication, a stark attempt to impact the elections.

Award-winning investigative journalist Yaov Yitzhak, in a harsh indictment of prosecutorial (mis)conduct, quotes directly from the text of the indictments and demonstrates decisively the dramatic disconnect between the facts presented in evidence—which he argues are largely exculpatory for Netanyahu—and accusatory conclusions the prosecution draws from them.

Not an uncritical apologist

As readers who follow my column will recall that I have never been an uncritical, pro-Bibi apologist.

On the contrary, I have excoriated a number of his policy decisions, regularly and severely, and have even called for his resignation on matters of policy.

Thus, for example, I strongly condemned his 2009 Bar-Ilan speech, in which he accepted the idea of Palestinian statehood—see here and here. Likewise, I was severely critical of his decision to release more than 1,000 convicted terrorists (2011) to secure the release of captured Israel Defense Forces’ soldier, Gilad Shalit ,  and even more opposed to a subsequent (2013) release of prisoners as a futile gesture to assuage the then-Secretary of State, John Kerry, in the vain hope of coaxing Mahmoud Abbas into renewing negotiations — see here and here.

I vehemently disapproved of his ill-advised attempt at rapprochement with Turkey — particularly, the compensation paid for the casualties incurred when Israeli commandos had to defend themselves against attempts to tear them limb from limb on the Mavi Marmara, a Turkish vessel, trying to breach the maritime quarantine of the terror enclave in Gaza.

Perhaps my most serious and ongoing criticism of Netanyahu is his enduring failure to adequately address the problem of international delegitimization of Israel by refusing to allot adequate resources to initiate and sustain a strategic diplomatic offensive to confront, curtail and counter the global assault on the legitimacy of the Jewish state — see here.

Netanyahu: A transformative leader

But for all my sharp disagreements with Netanyahu, my criticism was always focused exclusively on matters of substantive policy, never on matters ad hominem.

Moreover, despite that criticism, it is undeniable that in many ways, he has been a truly transformative leader.

Under his stewardship, Israel has become one of the best performing economies in the world  with GDP per capita breaching the $40,000 mark for the first time ever in 2017, up sharply by almost 45 percent since 2009, when he was first re-elected after losing power in 1999.

He has drastically reduced Palestinian terror from the horrific levels he “inherited” from the Rabin-Peres era — and, despite occasional flare-ups, he has largely managed to contain it to hardly perceptible proportions — certainly, nowhere near the grisly scale that prevailed under his predecessors.

In terms of foreign policy, he has produced remarkable success. He managed to wait out the inclement incumbency of Barack Obama, emerging largely unscathed ,  despite the undisguised antipathy between the two men.

His views on Iran and its perilous nuclear ambitions have been embraced by the Trump administration. He has managed to initiate far-reaching changes in Middle East politics, with increasingly amicable — albeit, as yet, only semi-overt — relations with important Arab states, inconceivable several years ago, while sidelining — or at least, significantly reducing — the centrality of the intractable “Palestinian problem.”

He has overseen Israel’s “pivot” eastwards and burgeoning relationships with the ascendant economies of India and China, increasingly offsetting Israel’s commercial dependence on the oft less-than-benign European Union. He also has scored remarkable diplomatic successes in Africa and South America.

Moreover, notwithstanding difficulties with western European countries, he has fostered increasingly warm relations and understanding with those in Central and Eastern Europe.

Despite success, an unceasing assault

Yet despite his remarkable success, Netanyahu has been ceaselessly assailed by his political adversaries ever since he was first elected in 1996. Indeed, it is perhaps his very success that has generated such raw rancor against him.

After all, almost immediately following his unexpected, razor-thin 1996 victory over Shimon Peres—the left-leaning liberal establishment candidate for the premiership—Netanyahu has been hounded and harassed by his political rivals within Israel’s entrenched civil society elites, and subjected to a maelstrom of allegations that range from the petty to the preposterous.

For two decades, he has been berated by the self-appointed bon-ton set, who saw him as an impudent upstart usurper of their “divinely ordained” right to govern. Significantly, the recriminations against him rarely, if ever, related to the manner in which he discharged the duties of the office to which he was elected.

As their astonished disbelief morphed into visceral rage, a cavalcade of charges was unleashed, admonishing him (and/or his spouse) for irregular use of garden furniture; the employment of an electrician; the proceeds from the sale of recycled bottles; payments to a moving contractor; an inflated ice-cream bill (no kidding); the cost of his wife’s coiffure; meals ordered for the official prime minister’s residence from restaurants; and expenses involving the care of his ailing 96-year-old father-in-law.

Cresting ‘Bibiphobia’

The “Bibi-phobia” worked towards a crescendo with the onset of the 2015 elections, in which the prevailing perceptions of the polls and the pundits was that the Isaac Herzog-Tzipi Livni duo and the newly formed Zionist Union were poised to unseat him.

 Back then, I described the mounting anti-Bibi hysteria across the main-stream media, fueled, among other things, by funding from the Obama-administration, in the following terms:

“What we are witnessing is, in effect, little less than an attempt at a bloodless coup d’état—conducted, not by the military, but by the messianic, indeed manic, mainstream media, buttressed by affiliated like-minded civil society elites, in a frenzied effort to impose their minority worldview on the nation. … Enraged by their inability to rally sufficient public support on substantive policy issues, to unseat the object of their visceral enmity, Benjamin Netanyahu, and nonplussed by the tenacity of his “delinquent” hold on the premiership … his political rivals have despaired of removing him from office by normal electoral means. … Instead, they have descended into an unprecedented nadir of mean-spirited malevolence in Israeli public life … ”

Back then, in 2015, the anti-Bibi blitz was orchestrated largely by the media. When that proved ineffective, the tack, but not the target, was changed.

Today, the onslaught is spear-headed largely by the legal establishment that birthed Thursday’s indictments in yet another attempt to unseat a duly elected prime minister by means other than having another elected in his stead.

The real danger to democracy

Accordingly, it is difficult to escape the conclusion that real danger to Israel’s democracy is not in the alleged malfeasance by Netanyahu.

Indeed, the mere cost of their investigation dwarfs any conceivable damage his supposed misdeeds inflicted on the public coffers.

After all, apart from the malicious and the malevolent, who really cares if Netanyahu (heaven forfend) helped his buddy Arnon Milchin, a man with a record of considerable contribution to the security of the country, acquire a U.S. visa? And even if Netanyahu was perhaps excessively indulgent in accepting gifts from his well-heeled friend, surely some administrative sanction would be a more appropriate penalty than criminal proceedings?

Moreover, one can only wonder what grave damage the public interest suffered by Netanyahu not accepting the proffered bribe from Yediot Achronot editor Arnon Mozes. And can lukewarm coverage in an otherwise overwhelming anti-Netanyahu channel be convincingly categorized as the fruits of “corruption”? Indeed, one might be able to argue, as does Dershowitz (see above), that it was precisely the all-pervasive media animus towards the prime minister that comprised a dangerous distortion of the public discourse, which needed to be corrected.

So rather than the beleaguered prime minister comprising a dire threat to Israeli democracy, it is his implacable political adversaries across the gamut of Israeli civil-society elites that do so—driven by their inability to reconcile themselves to the verdict of vox populi—as expressed, freely and fairly, at the ballot box. It is their incessant endeavor to remove and replace an elected leader by the abuse of their unelected positions of power that erodes the very foundations of democratic governance.

Letting the cat out of the bag

The unrelenting drive to bring an indictment—any indictment—against Netanyahu has long exceeded the bounds of reasonable law enforcement. Indeed, it increasingly seems that the levers of the justice system are being used for nothing more than to eject him from power.

Strong corroboration of this was provided last week by the editor of The Jerusalem Post, who revealed that “ … the [Attorney-General Mandelblit was prepared to close the cases against Netanyahu if the prime minister agreed to resign from political life.”

So there you have it. All Netanyahu’s allegedly grave crimes would be removed from the roster, forgiven and forgotten, and go unpunished if he would only vacate his elected office. Doesn’t get much clearer (or damning) than that!

And that, dear readers, is the bald and disturbing truth from beginning to end.

Martin Sherman is the founder and executive director of the Israel Institute for Strategic Studies.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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