With sitting Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu eventually in the dock facing what could be a year-long trial on charges of corruption and fraud, the justice system in Israel has once again shown itself to be a credit to its country: fiercely independent, neither bowing to threats from government, nor setting itself up as a mechanism for campaigning opposition.
For years, the charges against Netanyahu have been delayed from coming to court so that a trial would not interfere with the fair passage of elections. This may have been frustrating, but it allowed the democratic process to run its course. But neither have the courts been dissuaded in the face of considerable political pressure from doing their duty and bringing credible charges before the judge.
There are three charges against the Prime Minister: that he received gifts of expensive cigars and Champagne from friends with the expectation that he might return various political favours; that he agreed to seek to scale back the publication of a newspaper over which he had some influence in return for favourable coverage from a rival; and most serious of all, what the attorney-general called a “reciprocal arrangement” between Netanyahu and the leading shareholder of a major media group, both of whom agreed to look after each other’s interests.
Netanyahu’s immediate predecessor as Prime Minister Ehud Olmert went to prison for 16 months for bribery, fraud, and tax evasion. Indeed, there seems to be something of a pattern developing. And though some call him the “crime minister”, many voters actually couldn’t care less if Netanyahu is guilty or not. I have applied the admittedly highly unscientific Jerusalem taxi driver test on several occasions and always seem to get a version of the same answer: politics is a dirty business, it’s the nature of the beast, at least Netanyahu will protect us from threats, foreign and domestic. And this attitude must surely be pretty widespread because despite these charges hanging over him for years, Netanyahu continues to do well at the ballot box.
When he arrived in the dock on Sunday, Netanyahu issued all sort of threats against the criminal justice system that required his attendance, in person. He thought the whole thing was a setup, politically motivated. For most of us democracy, and especially the all-important voting bit of it, has always been the best guarantor of due process and the rule of law. But when the electorate returns again and again to someone who has set himself up in opposition to the courts, democracy feels a little bit like it is coming apart at the seams. Following the impeachment trial of Donald Trump earlier this year, Netanyahu is the latest of the current crop of populist political strong men to see the inside of a courtroom. It is hard not to imagine that there will be others.