Tel Aviv Diary: Protesters have trashed Netanyahu’s get out of jail free card

Tuesday, 05 December 2017, 01:56:19 AM. A new law to prevent the prime minister being arrested for corruption draws fire.

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The summer of 2011 was known in Israel as “The Summer of the Protest.”

In 2011, a huge social protest movement developed, calling both for lower prices, in specific, and social justice, in general.

At the time, a friend commented to me that he hoped the protesters succeeded in achieving something — as he feared that if they did not, it would be a long time until people came out and demonstrated again.

In the end, the demonstrators of summer 2011 failed to accomplish anything significant.

In attempts to calm the masses, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu swiftly created a commission to look into their demands. Commission members studied the issues and made a group of recommendations — most of which were promptly ignored by the government.

And so, sadly, my friend was correct. For the last six years, few have made the effort to come out to come out for any demonstrations. Recently, the best attended demonstration in Tel Aviv was a gathering in celebration of veganism, in tandem with support for animal rights.

That is, until this past Saturday night.

On Saturday night, tens of thousands took to the streets of Tel Aviv. These were not the youth of 2011 but mostly an older demographic: the lawyers, the investment bankers, the doctors, architects, small business owners, retirees, and more.

They came out to protest the naked attempt of the government to pass laws to protect Netanyahu from the expected results of the police investigation into his alleged corruption.

For the past two weeks, Netanyahu’s representatives in the Knesset have been pursuing the passage of a bill that would make it illegal for the police to make public recommendations to the attorney-general at the end of their investigation as to whether there is a basis for an indictment.

GettyImages-884710648 Benjamin Netanyahu arrives for the weekly cabinet meeting at his Jerusalem office on December 3, 2017. SEBASTIAN SCHEINER/AFP/Getty

The bill was crafted explicitly to stop police from presenting their recommendations about their investigations in at least two of the cases where law enforcement is widely expected to recommend that Netanyahu be indicted.

Some members of the coalition were opposed to this bill. Even members of the Likud objected.

Nevertheless, by the end of the last week, the bill had cleared its initial reading in the Knesset — after David Biton and David Amsalem, (the two Likud MKs who were the point men for Netanyahu in the Knesset) made it clear that if the law was not passed, Netanyahu would break up the coalition and call for new elections.

No one knew whether or not Netanyahu was bluffing. However, the coalition members did not want new elections, so they all folded.

Still, to the demonstrators who filled Tel Aviv’s streets on Saturday night, the very rule of law in the country was in danger. So, they marched and rallied like they had not done in years.  

Remarkably, the demonstration on Saturday changed the prevailing political calculus. Minister of Finance Moshe Kachlon, who had reluctantly gone along with the proposed law, saw crowds in the streets — including many of his potential voters — and realized that continuing to support this law might well be political suicide. The fact that polls over the weekend showed overwhelming opposition to the law by the Israeli public also helped change Kachlon’s position.

In addition, it probably did not help the bill’s chances of being passed when it was announced that David Biton, the Likud’s Knesset whip (and one of the key figures behind these laws), was being interrogated by police under threat of prosecution for widespread corruption while serving as deputy mayor in his home town of Rishon L’Tzion.

Biton’s initial interrogation lasted 13 hours. Other suspects tied to Biton, who are not members of Knesset, were arrested —including the mayor of the town.  

With his majority evaporating, Netanyahu decided he had no choice, but to both delay the vote on the law and state that if it were to pass, it would not cover his case.

A new version of the law has been introduced stating that it will not affect any ongoing investigations. At this point, Netanyahu seems to be confident that, politically, he will be able to ride out a police recommendation, should he be indicted.

Under the current system, police enter their recommendation, but the attorney-general makes the final decision on whether to proceed.

If history is a guide, it could take many months for the A-G to decide whether to indict Netanyahu. In the meantime, he hopes he can continue his duties as prime minister.

Netanyahu’s fear is that if the police recommend indictment and detail his alleged crimes, the street power that has awakened and has succeeded in changing the course of events this weekend will grow, and as a result the pressure on his coalition partners to force him to resign will be too great to withstand.

This is but one of many possible scenarios. Israeli politics is entering into uncharted territory, where any outcome is possible. For this one moment, however, those who participated in the rally Saturday night have a smile on their faces.

For once, political protest seems to have had an impact here in Israel.

Marc Schulman is a Multimedia Historian.

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