(Reuters) – In an apparent slip of the tongue on Sunday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu described Israel as a nuclear power before correcting himself with a bashful nod and an embarrassed smile.
Netanyahu stumbled at the weekly cabinet meeting while reading in Hebrew prepared remarks on a deal with Greece and Cyprus on a subsea gas pipeline.
He then paused for a beat, acknowledging his mistake with a smile, and then ploughed on with his comments.
The rare blooper from one of Israel’s most polished politicians swiftly proliferated on social media.
Netanyahu is fighting for his political survival in a March 2 vote after two inconclusive elections in April and September. In November, he was indicted on corruption charges, which he denies.
“Mah pitom!?” That was how Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu replied to an Israeli TV anchor when asked if he would seek legal immunity from prosecution for charges of bribery, fraud, and breach of trust.
On a dime, the master communicator, or manipulator–depending on which political camp one supports–deflected the issue, blocking a very seasoned journalist with his verbal jousting.
Many Hebrew expressions defy precise translation, and mah pitom is yet another. Depending on body language, tone, and context, it can mean: condescending, derisive, playful, dismissive. Netanyahu used the very elastic expression to wriggle out of yet another attempt to wrangle him into committing, one way or another, to a clear position on his immunity.
Netanyahu’s mah pitom was the equivalent of a flick of the wrist, combined with: “Are you crazy?” or “How could you even think that?”
The prime minister then proceeded to explain to the interviewer, who he surely sees as yet another member of the leftist Tel-Aviv media cabal conspiring to bring him down, “I haven’t busied myself with such things and don’t intend to.” His body language, impatient tone, and dismissive facial expression said it all: contempt.
As in: “Why would you even ask me such a dumb question?!? Of course, I would never consider such a move. I lead the only democratic nation in the Middle East!”
Now, the last bit he merely implied, as if this persistent probing by the media was yet another silly plot hatched to discredit him.
So, too, Netanyahu alleges, are the trumped-up charges brought against him: baseless. In his view, they’re being promoted by an out-of-control judiciary, state justice establishment, and media. This is how Bibi carries on, dodging any verbal commitment to whether or not he would seek immunity and, even if he did, he would do so only as permitted by law (the parameters of which are fuzzy), and that it would just be for the duration of his tenure as prime minister (which is looking, increasingly, like it might be forever).
And, then, there’s the matter of ethics and the interest of the state. Does it serve the nation to allow a prime minister, fighting criminal charges in court, to continue to hold the highest office? Not only will he be distracted from his critical duties and forced to engage in a trial, but it would taint the integrity of national institutions as well as Israel’s reputation.
Bibi would likely say: “Mah pitom?! Look at what Israel has accomplished in the last decade under my leadership! We have robust relations with our Arab neighbors! We are drawing natural gas and selling it internationally! We continue to enjoy economic prosperity! But no one wants to talk about that! All you want to talk about is immunity!”
In fact, that is pretty much what the prime minister said to the assembled press on Wednesday night, when he interrupted the nightly 8 pm newscast in the first few minutes to tell the nation–hours from a legal deadline for his decision–that he most certainly intended to request immunity.
He presented it as a “no big deal” sort of thing. It is both permitted by law and an eminently reasonable and appropriate protection for a sitting prime minister to invoke.
Except that it is not so simple.
Netanyahu’s immunity request must be approved by a majority of Knesset members. It seems that Bibi’s nemesis, Avigdor Lieberman, is withholding his party’s support, making defeat certain. So, then, the “magician” (one of Bibi’s several nicknames) pulls yet another rabbit out of his hat: He arranges for the Knesset Speaker, Likud member Yuli Edelstein, to be “abroad” until the weekend, thus putting the kybosh on the opposition’s efforts to convene a Knesset Committee to discuss the matter and—ergo–pour more oil on the anti-Bibi flames.
For a slew of technical reasons, Edelstein’s lack of availability defers any such Committee hearing until after the March 2 election (the third election within 12 months). So, Netanyahu now has two months to salvage his ability to control the entire darn process. If he pulls off a majority of 61 in the March 2 election, then he has carte blanche to do as he pleases.
Bibi’s supporters stand by their man. These latest manoeuvers have seen him hold firm in the polls. Meaning that, for now, the third election looks like it will result in the same deadlock as the last two. Many observers of this unprecedented mess–even by the rough standards of Israeli politics–are certain that Netanyahu will never raise a white flag. He and his base believe that this is exactly why he must fight; to stamp out the institutional corruption and prejudice that is at the root of these charges brought against him.
Then, there is the matter of imminent criminal charges to be brought against two other sitting cabinet ministers, who are key elements in this unbreakable right-wing “bloc.” Should Bibi get immunity, chances are that Yakov Litzman and Aryeh Deri, leaders of the two ultra-orthodox parties commandin seats combined in the Knesset, will also avoid prosecution. And that is a mighty powerful reason for them to support this immunity brinksmanship
As Deri’s new campaign posters Israel proclaim: “Aryeh needs a strong Bibi!”
Indeed. But query whether “Aryeh’s needs” jibe with those of the country.
Vivian Bercovici served as Canada’s ambassador to Israel from 2014 to 2016. She is a lawyer and consultant and resides in Tel Aviv.