Will One Man Choose the Next Prime Minister of Israel?

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is up for reelection and leading the polls. Israel’s attorney general Avichai Mandelblit wants to circumvent the democratic process and choose the next Israeli leader himself.

Benjamin Netanyahu, Prime Minister, State of Israel. (photo: Chatham House)

AG Knows Best

Since Israel is one of the few democracies that offers no legal protection for sitting political leaders, elected officials are wide open to partisan challenge and politically-motivated investigations. This lack of proper oversight seriously calls into question Mandleblit’s decision to seek indictment so close to a contentious election.

An election widely seen by the world as a referendum, not only on the policies of the Israeli Prime Minister, but his warm relationship with controversial U.S. President Donald Trump.

The indictments also fall conveniently close to the election, but not so close as to finish before the election, depriving Netanyahu the benefit of being found guilty, or at least culpable, in a court of law before costing him the election.

“Mandelblit only announced that he is considering indicting Netanyahu. In other words, the announcement does not mean that Netanyahu would necessarily be indicted. This is not specific to Netanyahu’s case, but rather a feature of the Israeli justice system: Netanyahu, like most criminal defendants in Israel who face serious charges, will get a hearing before a final decision is made. Based on news reports and past precedents, the hearing will take place several months from now, after the April elections. This process is governed by the guidelines of the state attorney — the official subordinate to the attorney general who directs prosecutions — for notification and hearing in criminal proceedings.” — Elena Chachko, SJD candidate at Harvard Law School, International Security Program Fellow at Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center, graduate student associate at the Harvard Weatherhead Center for International Affairs, researcher at the Israel Democracy Institute.

If Prime Minister Netanyahu is made to appear guilty in the court of public opinion, without the opportunity to defend himself before the election, it suggests strongly the weakness of the attorney general’s case. If Mandelblit had a strong case, he would wait until after the election a.) to avoid the suspicion of political motivation, the wheels of justice turn slowly anyway and b.) maximum effect.

Removing someone from office once elected is a more powerful message to voters, who will feel shocked and betrayed by the party that tricked them into voting for a criminal.

In two high-profile cases of previous officials dragged through this process prior to election, Avigdor Liberman and Ariel Sharon, nothing came of the legal proceedings against them.

Polling shows Netanyahu ahead. But with these charges pending, it is difficult to tell how voting will be impacted.

However, the Prime Minster is not without his supporters. Prominent professor Alan Dershowitz refuted the charges against Netanyahu in an open letter to Mandelblit and argued an indictment would threaten Israeli democracy.

Even Bret Stephens, notorious Netanyahu critic, had a glowing assessment of the Prime Minister’s effectiveness at the helm of Israel in the New York Times.

“As noted last year in matters of policy and execution, Netanyahu has been a remarkably effective prime minister. On his watch, Israel’s economy has thrived, its diplomatic horizons have widened, its borders have been defended and its enemies humiliated. Thanks to Donald Trump, whom he cultivated astutely and assiduously, he got his way on the Iran deal, brought the American Embassy to Jerusalem and pursued openings with the Arab world without making irreversible concessions to the Palestinians.” — Bret Stephens, a staunch Netanyahu critic, in the New York Times “Netanyahu must go”

“Israel’s critics may like none of this, but from an Israeli standpoint they are considerable successes.” — Bret Stephens, NYT

Using the office of Israel’s attorney general to further a political agenda is a dangerous strategy, one that could have radical implications for future Israeli elections.

It will also severely limit an elected leaders ability to effectively govern; with all their time wasted on endless investigations and rumored investigations. Getting nothing done doesn’t exactly help reelection chances.

The whole process undermines the entire point of democratic elections and sets the stage for a political party blame game that results in a weak, fractured government too embroiled in career survival to effectively govern anything.

(contributing writer, Brooke Bell)

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