Last week, the Israeli attorney general, Avichai Mandelblit, announced his intention, pending a formal hearing, to indict Prime Minister Netanyahu for bribery and the vaguely defined crime of breach of public trust. The hearing will take place after the April 9 national election, in which the prime minister remains a front runner. At issue in two of the three charges is the accusation that Netanyahu offered favorable policies in exchange for positive coverage in the press. Avi Bell argues that Mandelblit’s case rests on seriously stretching the definition of the crimes in question:
One way to look at the investigation is as a neutral application of a new understanding of the traditional crimes of bribery and breach of public trust. Under this interpretation, Mandelblit’s capacious understanding . . . may be unprecedented, but will now be applied across the board to all public officials and politicians. The horrifying result will be police oversight of nearly all interactions between the media and public officials.
When the evening news devotes fifteen minutes of generally positive coverage to [Netanyahu’s challenger] Benny Gantz, or to Mandelblit himself, producers and reporters may have to expect a summons to a police interrogation where they will be asked to demonstrate the purity of their motives. Politicians and public officials in constant touch with the media—that is, everyone in public life—will always find themselves on the verge of conviction of the felony of taking bribes, or, at least, “breach of public trust.” The center of Israeli political life will move to interrogation rooms in police stations.
The other interpretation is that the investigations should be seen as Netanyahu and his supporters paint them: special rules that are meant to apply only to Netanyahu. Israeli political life will not move to the police station, but will face the constant threat that law enforcement authorities may suddenly decide to apply “Bibi rules.” The harm to Israeli democracy of double standards in criminal law based on prosecutor’s will would be incalculable. And law-enforcement officials could never be seen as nonpartisan again.
There’s ample evidence for both interpretations of the prosecution—neutral and partisan—but it doesn’t really matter which is right: both indicate a severe crisis in Israel’s democratic governance.