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Benjamin Netanyahu is trying to put himself above the law

The Israeli prime minister’s latest attempt to avoid jail time further demonstrates his threat to democracy.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Gali Tibbon/AFP/Getty Images
Zack Beauchamp is a senior correspondent at Vox, where he covers ideology and challenges to democracy, both at home and abroad. Before coming to Vox in 2014, he edited TP Ideas, a section of Think Progress devoted to the ideas shaping our political world.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is battling corruption and bribery charges while simultaneously campaigning for reelection in March 2020. On New Year’s Day, he gave a speech that tried to tackle both topics at once — asking Israel’s parliament, the Knesset, to grant him temporary immunity from prosecution.

“Immunity is intended to protect elected representatives from trumped-up charges,” Netanyahu said. “I intend to keep leading Israel for many more years.”

The crimes of which Netanyahu is accused are serious, not “trumped up.” And his request is vanishingly unlikely to succeed in the short term, as the idea does not appear to be able to win majority support in the Knesset.

His appeal is best understood as a political gambit on two fronts. First, Netanyahu is bogging down the indictments in parliamentary procedure, preventing any politically damaging headlines regarding the case against him from being published until after the election. Secondly, he’s trying to use the immunity bid to rally his hardcore supporters by making it clear that no immunity will be forthcoming without a victory at the polls. If Netanyahu and his allies win March’s election, it’s likely that immunity would be at the top of their agenda.

The entire situation lays bare the stakes of the election with regard to the country’s democracy. A Netanyahu victory would allow a man who is already Israel’s longest-serving prime minister to both stay in office and grant himself immunity from allegations of serious criminal activity, including two separate schemes involving using the powers of his office to buy favorable media coverage.

After Wednesday’s speech, Netanyahu’s chief political rival — the centrist Blue and White party leader Benny Gantz — claimed the election was a choice for Israeli voters: They could have either “the Kingdom of Netanyahu … or the State of Israel.” He might very well be right.

What the immunity request is — and why it matters so much

The indictment against Netanyahu covers three different cases, with his alleged offenses including his receipt of inappropriate gifts from a billionaire and his corrupt arrangements with media magnates aimed at improving his press coverage. The technical charges are bribery, fraud, and breach of public trust — bribery being the most serious under Israeli law. Jail time is not out of the question: Former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert got wrapped up in a bribery scandal during his time in office in the late 2000s and eventually served over a year in prison.

Legally speaking, Netanyahu is well within his rights to request immunity from these charges while in office. Israel’s Basic Law (its equivalent to a constitution) allows for any members of the Knesset to request immunity from prosecution; another piece of legislation, known as the Immunity Law, helps codify how that process works.

The best technical explanation of all of this comes from Jonathan Lis, a reporter at Ha’aretz, Israel’s paper of record: He describes the four reasons for which a legislator can seek immunity:

If the crime was committed as part of the lawmaker carrying out their job; if the indictment is submitted not in good faith or in a discriminatory fashion; if the crime is committed inside the Knesset and the legislature has taken its own internal steps action on the matter; or if the results of a criminal process would infringe upon the ability of the Knesset or its committees to execute their functions.

In practice, the process for determining whether the prime minister’s case meets one of these conditions is, like impeachment in the US, fundamentally political. Netanyahu needs majority support from the Knesset’s 120 members, which he doesn’t have. Shortly after Netanyahu’s speech on Wednesday, Avigdor Lieberman — head of the secular nationalist Yisrael Beiteinu party, the crucial swing vote in the Knesset — ruled out offering support for the bid, claiming that “the State of Israel has become a hostage to Netanyahu’s personal problem.”

Netanyahu, a famously canny political operator, certainly knew that the odds of his immunity request succeeding were vanishingly low. Instead, his goal appears to be to delay things. According to Lis, the Knesset is not likely to take up the immunity question until after the election — and the trial process cannot go forward until after immunity is resolved.

It’s a political move aimed at turning around his party’s poll numbers. Blue and White has been hammering Netanyahu on his legal troubles, and the prime minister seems to be gambling that hitting a pause button on the case could limit the damage. Polls currently show Gantz’s Blue and White with a head-to-head lead over Netanyahu’s Likud, but in Israel’s fragmented political system, that’s not enough: Either leading party would need support from several smaller parties to form a 61-seat Knesset majority, and polls show that neither the center-left bloc backing Gantz nor the hard-right bloc backing Netanyahu have a clear majority. It’s a close race, and every little advantage matters.

But it’s also possible that this move backfires. A significant majority of Israelis oppose granting Netanyahu immunity from prosecution; Netanyahu’s push for it could well strengthen Blue and White’s core argument that another Netanyahu term would pose a serious threat to the very survival of Israeli democracy.

Blue and White has a real point here. Under Netanyahu’s leadership, Israel passed a law declaring that “the right to exercise national self-determination in the State of Israel is unique to the Jewish people” — a vision of national identity that excludes Arabs and other non-Jewish minorities. It passed a law aimed at silencing non-governmental organizations (NGOs) that monitor the Israeli military’s human rights abuses in the Palestinian territories, and attacked the independence of the judiciary.

The most serious of the corruption charges themselves center on similarly anti-democratic behavior. Netanyahu allegedly manipulated regulatory powers in order to benefit Bezeq, a major Israeli company. In exchange, the Bezeq-owned news organization Walla gave the prime minister more favorable coverage. Netanyahu allegedly traded regulations for good press over a five-year period, an authoritarian tactic for neutering the free press reminiscent of Hungarian strongman Viktor Orbán.

Leading Israeli experts warn that granting Netanyahu immunity — which would be his first order of business if he wins the election in March — would constitute yet another serious attack on the very foundations of Israeli democracy.

“As Israel does not have term limits for members of Knesset or for its prime ministers, granting immunity means an indefinite delay in the legal proceedings and would constitute irreparable harm to the principle of ‘equality before the law,’” Yohanan Plesner, the head of the Israel Democracy Institute think tank, said in an emailed statement. “By remaining in the highest elected office while indicted of such serious crimes, significant harm will be caused to the public’s trust in the rule of law.”

Netanyahu is not the root cause of Israel’s democratic woes: The fundamental reasons for democratic backsliding in the country are deeply tied to its occupation of Palestinian land. Israel administers a military dictatorship over Palestinians in the West Bank. Bringing Israel back from this abyss is a huge task, one that no one in Israeli politics may want to attempt.

But Netanyahu’s push for immunity shows how his survival-at-all-costs approach to politics could bring an even swifter end to democracy in the country should he go unpunished. A whole lot is riding on March’s vote.

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