Benjamin Netanyahu had one more chance on Thursday night to prove that he loves his country more than himself. Responding to the attorney general’s announcement that he was pressing criminal charges against the prime minister, Netanyahu could have acted as a true patriot rather than a self-absorbed tyrant, like a devoted democrat rather than a common criminal, like a leader who is bound to his sworn duty to protect Israel, its laws and its citizens.
But if Netanyahu had chosen such a path, he wouldn’t be the Netanyahu who throughout the past year has subjugated the state’s interests to his own. Even if he genuinely feels wrongly accused and the victim of “gross injustice,” as he said in a carefully crafted broken voice, a prime minister who loves his country would respect the rule of law, bow his head to its institutions and decisions, and pledge to prove his innocence in a court of law, like any citizen.
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Instead, Netanyahu launched a full-scale and frenzied attack on the legal system, accusing it of inherent corruption and of plotting against him. Essentially, he declared mutiny against the state he leads. Theoretically, he could even be accused of criminal sedition — defined, among other things, as “stirring hate, derision or disloyalty to the state or its governing and legal institutions.” That is what Netanyahu is doing when he accuses Israel’s legal authorities of trying to frame and depose him with fabricated facts, invented crimes and trumped-up charges.
It is hard to overstate the drama or severity of the constitutional and political crisis that grips Israel following Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit’s decision to indict, and Netanyahu’s refusal to play by accepted rules. In the midst of an unprecedented stalemate that has effectively left the country without a functioning government, the prime minister has been accused of serious crimes. Even for a country accustomed to chronic instability and volatility, this feels like an earthquake — in the twilight zone.
Objectively, there was nothing new in the indictment or in its public presentation on Thursday night by Mendelblit. Most of the details have been published, as were the expected charges: Fraud and breach of trust in two cases, the more severe bribery in the third. Nonetheless, Mendelblit’s somber appearance and uncharacteristically harsh words, after years of reticence, added gravitas to his announcement and made it seem more momentous.
History can be praised for its brilliant casting for choosing Mendelblit to be the attorney general who tells Israelis their prime minister is a crook. One can hail Mendelblit’s slow and methodical approach or blast his slow pace and reticence, but one thing’s for sure: He has the best possible public profile for an attorney general who is charging Netanyahu with serious crimes.