Is This the End of the Road for Israel’s Netanyahu?

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

Views from the Region

February 21, 2018

Long known as a tenacious politician, Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu’s survival skills are being once again called upon in the toughest test to date. The prime minister and his allies have been forced to wrestle with a series of corruption allegations documented in a thorough police report that could lead to Mr. Netanyahu’s indictment. The main question, for his supporters and detractors alike, is what will Mr. Netanyahu’s next move be? Will he resign, or will he call an early election in an attempt to strengthen his hand?

For the prime minister’s adversaries, the answer is simple: resign. According to various media reports, like this one from the Times of Israel, “The Knesset’s largest opposition faction, the Zionist Union, on Thursday targeted motorists in its effort to drive home the message that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu should resign following police recommendations that he be indicted for corruption. A huge billboard over the main Tel Aviv highway quoted Netanyahu himself, who said in 2008 that ‘a prime minister who is neck-deep in investigations has no public or moral mandate to make crucial decisions… the right thing to do is for the government to go home’. Netanyahu made the comments in reference to Ehud Olmert, the prime minister at the time, who was under investigation for multiple cases of suspected corruption.”

Additionally, in a recent op-ed for Yedioth Ahronoth (whose owner is one of the main actors at the heart of the corruption investigation) Sima Kadmon suggests that the police report is damning enough to spell the end of Mr. Netanyahu’s political career: “As of Tuesday evening, it’s clear that this isn’t just about takeaway trays or a few cigars—gifts provided by friends—but about a bribe totaling about NIS 1 million and a return. It’s unlikely that the State Attorney’s Office, which received the police recommendations on Tuesday, will turn the tide, and it’s hard to believe that the attorney general will be able to evade the bomb waiting on his doorstep…. Even the skeptics among us, those who believe Netanyahu can get himself out of anything, understand after Tuesday night that this is the beginning of the end. Despite Netanyahu’s promise to run again in the next elections, which will be held on time, I doubt he actually believes it.”

Such arguments have been used as examples of bias by Mr. Netanyahu’s allies. Interestingly, the Israeli daily Hayom, allegedly used by the prime minister as a bargaining chip for more favorable coverage by the Yedioth Ahronoth, shows no signs of turning its back on him, with Hayom’s Haim Shine accusing the media of being “out for revenge…. It is difficult to assess the mood of the Israeli public after police on Tuesday announced their recommendations in the corruption cases against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. This is mainly because a majority of the TV channels are controlled by a biased media that in large part serves as a platform for its own positions…. To this, we must add the fact that Yair Lapid, the former finance minister who would like to be Israel’s prime minister, served as a type of state witness in the case. Witnesses whose interests are only too well-known will always raise doubts as to their credibility.”

Writing for the conservative Arutz Sheva, Jack Engelhard attempts to minimize the nature of the charges against Mr. Netanyahu and his wife, drawing parallels between those charges and the ones faced by Mr. Trump: “The Netanyahu government is at risk of being toppled – over what? He took cigars?… This is cigar-gate. That is barely worth a headline… Yes, this is a story tailor-made for the Left, for whom Trump and Netanyahu can always expect nasty coverage… All they need is a scent to keep them in business…. in Netanyahu’s case it appears that his gifts were just that – trinkets and knickknacks, not kickbacks, that Sara would choose to ornament the armoire and bookcase. Sara, she too, they say, will soon also be charged. Same accusations – gifts. No, not cigars, we trust…and from here in Americas, this is the only thing scandalous we can find – that she actually lets him light up those things around the house.”

Others wonder, like Yaakov Ahimer, also writing for the Netanyahu-friendly Hayam, whether the concept of the “presumption of innocence” has been completely ignored in favor of bombastic media coverage: “[E]ven before he is indicted – if he will be indicted at all – Netanyahu has already been convicted in on-air tribunals. There were a few analysts and hosts who called it a “sad evening,” but prior to and after making that observation, some of them had a tough time hiding their euphoric expressions…. The legal system, not the public, will decide whether the gifts and receipt of bottles of champagne and cigars were bribes and not presents between friends. But we should hope that the next few months, until the fateful decision is made, will be characterized by restraint and cool-headedness. Sorry, that’s just a wish that has no chance of being granted.”

But as Moran Azulay points out in a recent op-ed, it seems unlikely that, given the weight of the evidence against him, even someone as adept as the prime minister can wiggle free this time around. However, calling early elections may be one way for him to do so: “No speech, as good as it may be, can rescue Netanyahu from the legal imbroglio he has gotten himself into. The police recommendations are firm, decisive and reasoned…. In the long run, Netanyahu can’t afford to sit down and wait for the attorney general’s decision. If the AG decides to indict him, it will be very hard for him to run an election campaign with such a cloud hanging over his head. If he does go to elections before the AG’s decision, he would be able to win, come back and tell the AG and the public: ‘You’ve seen it all, you’ve heard it all, you’ve reelected me—now stop bothering me with legal trivialities’.”

Ultimately, though, Netanyahu’s fate may not be in his own hands after all. Jerusalem Post’s Yaakov Katz notes that regardless of what the prime minister may decide, what happens next will depend more on the calculations of his allies within his own Likud party, rather than his adversaries: “Netanyahu might as well go immediately to elections, since he would likely win. He would argue that the police ran a politicized investigation…, framed him, and built a paper tiger case. In the end, from a bombastic recommendation of bribery, all that is left, he will claim, is breach of trust, a charge so vague that it would likely have minimal impact on voter results…. While Netanyahu announced on Tuesday night that he would not go down quietly – that he will fight on, and will run in the next election – it might not be up to him. There is a growing disgruntled faction within the Likud, where even long-time confidants like Yuval Steinitz and Gilad Erdan now barely speak to the prime minister.”

But Haaretz’s Anshel Pfeffer believes that we have only witnessed the opening salvo of what may turn out to be a long and drawn out war of attrition. While Mr. Netanyahu may have lost the opening round, much more remains undecided: “In the aftermath of Tuesday’s police recommendations to indict him on double charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust, it is already clear that he made a colossal mistake two years ago, perhaps fatal for him, in naming Roni Alsheich as Israel’s police commissioner…. As the shock of Tuesday night’s recommendations begin to wear off and the Netanyahu operation gears up, the lineup hasn’t changed all that much. He lost this round to Alsheich but, facing a ponderous, hesitant attorney general and a weak rank of challengers, Netanyahu still has everything to fight for.”

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

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