by Mati Tuchfeld
If Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit caves to pressure and files an indictment against PM Benjamin Netanyahu while the 2019 Knesset campaign is underway, it will become the sole issue of the election.
It hasn't been a week since Israel Hayom first reported that the Likud Knesset campaign plans to target any decision by Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit to file an indictment against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, pending a hearing, while the campaign is underway. In effect, the attack on Mendelblit has already begun, before any decision has been made about a hearing. It started with stray comments from a few MKs and ministers. It progressed to hints from the prime minister, who was visiting Brazil. And it reached a new height on Thursday in a video Netanyahu published denying that Mendelblit would file an indictment before the voters headed to the booths on April 9.
But if the attorney general isn't deterred by Netanyahu's outburst and the opinion of Judge (ret.) Oded Mudrik and other senior legal scholars and proceeds with an indictment, what we saw on Thursday will be nothing compared to what the Likud campaign has in store. If Mendelblit decides to indict, it will not only become the central issue of the 2019 Knesset campaign, it will be the sole focus of the country's politics.
But the attacks on and attempts to delegitimize the looming decision rest on arguments that are hard to ignore. According to Netanyahu, if a decision is made about a hearing prior to the election, everyone knows that the hearing itself and the decision in which it results will take place only after the vote. In other words, by the time the polls open, the citizens of Israel will be able to read only the indictment against Netanyahu as worded by the attorney general, and not the defense.
Anyone who thinks that the hearing process is merely an unimportant matter of protocol is wrong. Sometimes, hearings can completely reverse decisions about indictments. It is essentially the first time the attorney general can receive answers from the suspect. Until now, all he has had on Netanyahu has been the police records of questioning sessions. Netanyahu is speaking out more forcefully against a possible indictment before the election as part of the campaign, but that doesn't make him wrong.
We can assume that there are plenty of Likud players who would prefer that Mendelblit indict the prime minister during the campaign. If that happens, senior Likud officials will be able to argue that law enforcement is targeting the prime minister. That he's being persecuted. That the attorney general is a good, deserving person who caved under pressure. And that the ball is now in the hands of the people. And that only the public will decide from here on out whether it buys the accusations against Netanyahu or not. Senior party officials think that this would give the Likud tremendous potential to expand. In the 1999 Knesset election, Shas Party leader Aryeh Deri was indicted, and the party won 17 seats, making it the third-largest party in the Knesset. That pales in comparison to what an indictment of Netanyahu would do for the Likud now.
The center-left election campaign is starting off on the wrong foot, with an astonishing drop in the polls, splits and factionalization, coup attempts in Labor – it's a real mess. They comprise a lifeline in terms of the cases against Netanyahu. They're all he has to grab onto. The calls from the Center-Left to indict him no matter what are no credit to their leaders, who are just proving that they can't oust Netanyahu from the Prime Minister's Office without the help of Mendelblit and his friends.
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