None of the ministers, members of Knesset or partners I had during my years in politics, were part of my decision to resign from my role as prime minister.
A PROTEST against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem. / (photo credit: REUTERS)
The picture of a mask-free Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu standing behind the speaker’s podium, surrounded by leading cabinet ministers who are all donning masks, is surprisingly similar to the picture of Al Capone as he stands surrounded by his associates, assistants and mercenaries just before his trial is about to begin. Of course, this resemblance is misleading as Netanyahu is no Al Capone and his band of ministers is not a group of violent mercenaries who were connected with an organized crime boss like Al Capone.
But the resemblance of the two images is uncanny. It was something about the combination of incitement, victimization, accusations, threats and intimidation that was so dominant in Netanyahu’s appearance before the opening of his trial this week inside the Jerusalem District Court, next to the Ministry of Justice.
I was asked: Could I feel what was going through his mind or what Netanyahu was feeling in those moments before he strode into the Jerusalem courtroom? And in particular, did I have an inkling what he was feeling when the court clerk announced the entry of the judges and Netanyahu stood next to the defendant’s chair, so close (maybe too close for comfort?) to Noni Mozes and Shaul Elovitch and showed respect to the judges who would determine his fate in the near future.
I can’t answer this question, for I am not Netanyahu. There’s no similarity between us at all. Indeed, I, too, had my time in court, and I admit it was not pleasant or easy. I stood up respectfully when the judges entered, offering them my respect. With the help of my attorneys, I attempted to present to the court and the public my arguments, answers and positions regarding my complex web of activity I engaged in over many years in the roles of minister, mayor of Jerusalem and prime minister.
There was not one moment that brought me pleasure or nachas or a feeling of satisfaction during any of those many long days I spent in that very same courtroom in the Jerusalem District Court. I did experience one moment of relief when the verdict was read out acquitting me of the main charges, which were the main focus of the public and media attention. Naturally, there was much discussion of the investigations during the period preceding the trial, including my resignation from the post of prime minister, of course.
One would imagine that I experienced moments of pain, discomfort, uneasiness and intense anger directed at the former state prosecutors (Eran Shender, Moshe Lador, Shai Nitzan), some of the police investigators, former attorney general Manny Mazuz, a few print and electronic journalists who were not too kind to me, and did not, in my opinion, display the correct amount of tolerance and restraint that I expected and for which I had longed.
Of course, there were also public figures, politicians, ministers, members of Knesset and other people I came across whose reactions, conduct, criticism and judgment of me seemed unfair, hasty and baseless.
AS I detailed in my book that I wrote many years after I’d served as prime minister, after my trial was over, and after I finished serving the time I’d been given – contrary to allegations – none of the ministers, members of Knesset or partners I had during my years in politics, were part of my decision to resign from my role as prime minister.
I resigned from a position that I loved so much in order to deal with the wave that threatened to drown me. I renounced the protection the status as prime minister could offer me. Surely, there were many people who yearned for me to resign, some of whom even said so publicly. But, under no circumstances did anyone have the ability or the will to bring about my resignation or to topple the government that would, no doubt, have led to a political crisis the results of which would be impossible to predict.
I took this step that was in complete contradiction to what I knew was true – that I had not failed and that I was not guilty of what had been attributed to me. I deliberated and consulted with my family members, who provided me with emotional support and worried together with me, which was so very important to me.
In the end, it was clear to me that it was not a formal question. The problem wasn’t how flexible the law can be to allow a prime minister to continue to fulfill his role. The crucial question is: What is the public and moral significance of a prime minister continuing to function as prime minister, while at the same time, fighting to keep his personal and political lives intact? This is very much a conflict of interest.
How can we maintain a feeling of national solidarity in fateful matters that require decision-making of the most sensitive matters of state, which sometimes involve danger for individuals and perhaps even large numbers? When this behavior is accompanied by a feeling that, perhaps, the decisions might be affected, not by matter-of-fact, sober responsible national interest, but heaven forbid, by an effort to strengthen the status of a prime minister in his fight for survival. How can one maintain proper and correct governance in such a troubled reality?
This is not an objective question. It’s impossible to measure these feelings with exact figures. At the end of the day, it’s a conscientious, moral decision that no one can make unless one has been in this specific situation: the prime minister.
In my case, the decision was mine to make, and I did not reach this decision easily or happily. I did not make my decision following threats made by the defense minister, warnings from the foreign minister, pressure from newspaper articles or TV broadcasts. Neither did I belittle my role in the mistakes I made. The decisive reasoning behind my decision was the feeling that if I try to postpone making a decision, in the end I might find myself in a position similar to the one we’re currently experiencing.
WHAT’S CURRENTLY happening is the inevitable result of the prime minister’s decision to do everything, without a moment’s rest, with no restriction or restraint, in order to remain in power. As a result, the country has been dragged into holding three elections, which created an atmosphere of direct, almost violent, threat, initially on the prime minister’s political opponents, and later on the gatekeepers, the police chief, the prosecutor’s office and in the end, when left with no choice, on the judges, too.
When a defendant does this – any defendant – it is naturally and somewhat indifferently accepted, even if uncomfortably. When the defendant is a civil servant, the rules of game are different.
For many years now, I’ve felt rage and anger burning inside of me directed toward some of the people who were responsible for making the decisions that I knew were wrong and harmful for me. I’ve harbored this anger inside of me during the entire time I served as prime minister. I knew that the use of my position, authority and power that came from my position, might be understood in a such a way as to cause a schism within the public and within the state, as well.
I waited many years until giving expression to some of these experiences, which I finally did in an autobiographical book that I published in March 2018, nine years after I left the position of prime minister.
All of this is the exact opposite of what’s taking place at the present time. Netanyahu is behaving like an elephant in a china shop. He walks around like a cowboy with two loaded pistols, and shoots in all directions, not caring that innocent bystanders are getting caught in the crossfire.
When a prime minister stands in a courtroom and declares that the chief of police and the attorney general, who he himself appointed, set him up, and then proceeds to declare them as enemies of the state, he is inciting, causing division and disputes, and threatening the basis of the solidarity that anchors and maintains the social stability of the State of Israel.
The prime minister is not trying to defend himself in court. What he’s trying to do is make sure that his political power, combined with the rebellion against the police, the prosecutor’s office and the courts, will eventually lead to the collapse of all of these institutions, without which the country will fall apart and anarchy will take over our lives. He is not the first leader of a democratic country willing to endanger its citizens’ democratic way of life in order to protect himself and his family’s personal interests. He’s just Israel’s first prime minister to do this.
The conduct of the prime minister, the argumentative language, the threats on the “left-wing court” and on his political opponents, puts the Israeli public to a serious test. We are so proud that Israel, as Ehud Barak said when he was prime minister, is a “villa in a jungle.” In other words, we are the only democracy in a crowded region made up of undemocratic countries. These past few months have brought us closer – at a dizzying speed – to a reality that is different from anything Israel has ever before experienced.
WE’VE SURVIVED periods of internal conflict within our public institutions. We got through a period in which our prime minister – who declared the establishment of the State of Israel – also declared an unbearable political boycott of the Herut and Maki political parties. We’ve experienced election campaigns that were saturated with negative emotions that sometimes bordered on violence. The climax was the assassination of Israel’s former prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, who paid with his life for the efforts he made to advance a peace agreement with the Palestinians, even in the face of incitement that spread like wildfire and in the end led to his murder.
Netanyahu himself made a significant contribution to the incitement that led in the end to that terrible tragedy. It probably never occurred to him, though, that such a tragic could result from the parades in which people carried pictures of Rabin wearing an SS uniform, or a coffin on their shoulders as they protested loudly against the government and its leader while he was the main speaker at these rallies.
Netanyahu must have learned a lesson from what happened; the incitement for which he was responsible in the past and in the present is the main cause of the current situation, which could also end in tragedy.
The targets this time around are the prosecutor’s office and the courts. It’s okay to express your disapproval of the way certain people are handling affairs. I, too, have done so in the past, although only as a private citizen, and never when I was prime minister. Everyone makes mistakes – none of us is perfect – and we all sometimes misunderstand the various components of the complicated governmental structure and the person who stands at its head.
It’s permissible for the prime minister and the ministers and members of Knesset who support him to think that certain people have made a mistake, but to incite against them is unacceptable. To send the senior ministers who are under his authority to say that the attorney general is a crook, is tantamount to declaring war on democracy, which is the base our country’s existence depends upon.
What Netanyahu did, and for what he’s being tried, will be decided in the court. Until that moment, he must be presumed innocent.
What Netanyahu, his family and the group of servants that he keeps around him are doing outside of the court are crimes that are potentially worse than the crimes with which he’s being charged inside the Jerusalem courthouse.
The writer was the 12th prime minister of Israel.