Binyamin Netanyahu: final reckoning for the Israeli leader?

Facing corruption allegations, national security crises and questions about his fitness for leadership, the long-serving prime minister’s political future is far from certain

Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu: may opt for early elections this year to cash in on his popularity in the polls before the attorney general rules on an indictment. Photograph: Jim Hollander/EPA

Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu: may opt for early elections this year to cash in on his popularity in the polls before the attorney general rules on an indictment. Photograph: Jim Hollander/EPA

 

Binyamin Netanyahu, now in his fourth term as prime minister, is the only leader in Israel’s history to have been elected three times in a row. If his current government lasts its full term, until November next year, he will become the longest-serving prime minister in Israel’s history, surpassing Israel’s legendary founding father David Ben-Gurion.

According to current polls the right-wing/religious bloc will again be elected into power, led by the prime minister’s Likud party. Netanyahu remains, by a significant margin, the most popular choice for prime minister. He is, however, facing a series of corruption allegations, so his political future is far from certain, and he may well be forced to step down as prime minister before the next elections are held.

This week, in an embarrassing zig-zag, Netanyahu announced at a festive press conference on Monday that a new deal had been struck with the United Nations refugee agency to finally resolve one of Israel’s most pressing issues: what to do with the almost 40,000 African asylum seekers threatened with forced deportation by the government. Under the deal the UN would have taken responsibility for resettling 16,000 of the migrants in western countries, while the rest would be allowed to stay and work in Israel.

However, less than seven hours later, in response to a backlash from his right-wing base, Netanyahu announced he was suspending the deal. The following morning he cancelled the agreement with the UN agency, prompting accusations of weak leadership and that the pressure of the police investigations was getting to him, rendering him no longer fit to lead the country.

Writing in the Yediot Aharonot newspaper, commentator Sima Kadmon described Netanyahu’s U-turn as unprecedented and worrying.

“This is something we haven’t had. Within an instant, the migrants again became infiltrators, and an important and courageous decision by the prime minister was trampled under the boots of the right-wing divisions. But what should trouble us more is the turnabout in Netanyahu’s decision, and the retraction within a few hours of things he said at the press conference.

“This can attest to one of two things: either the prime minister is being managed by unstable people, who have a dramatic influence upon him and cause him to change his decisions according to their positions, or he himself is confused and unsure of himself . . . This is no longer about refugees and infiltrators. This is about the prime minister’s condition and his ability to make decisions.”

Capitulation

Opposition figures levelled sharp criticism at what they called Netanyahu’s capitulation. Zionist Union leader Avi Gabbay said that this was a sad, embarrassing and troubling episode, and added that there was no reason to presume that the prime minister’s decision-making process on security affairs was any better.

Every Israeli leader faces critical security-related decisions on an almost daily basis, and Netanyahu is no exception. Israeli officials have admitted to carrying out some 200 air strikes in Syria in recent years to prevent advanced weaponry reaching the Iranian-backed Lebanese group Hizbullah in Lebanon.

Last weekend, Israeli forces shot and killed 17 Palestinians who were protesting on the Gaza border in what was planned by Hamas leaders in Gaza as the first stage in six weeks of demonstrations culminating in mid-May when Israel celebrates its 70th Independence Day, marked by the Palestinians as the Nakba, or catastrophe, the birth of the Palestinian refugee problem.

The key security challenge for Netanyahu remains the Iranian nuclear issue, and he has repeated on numerous occasions that Israel will not allow Tehran to acquire a nuclear bomb, with Israel ready to act alone if necessary. With the Trump administration threatening to withdraw next month from the nuclear agreement signed between the world powers and Iran, Netanyahu may be forced to confront sooner, rather than later, one of the most difficult dilemmas ever faced by an Israeli leader.

Can Netanyahu continue to manage Israel’s ongoing security challenges while the attorney general ponders whether or not to indict him on corruption charges? Does this week’s fiasco surrounding the U-turn on the African asylum seekers indicate that “King Bibi” is no longer secure on his throne? The jury is out but one thing is certain: if he goes, he will go fighting.

The police have recommended that Netanyahu be charged with bribery, fraud and breach of trust in two separate graft cases.

Wealthy friends

In “Case 1,000”, Netanyahu is alleged to have received gifts worth €230,000 from the Israeli-born Hollywood producer Arnon Milchan and other wealthy friends. “Case 2,000” centres on an allegation that Netanyahu asked the publisher of the Yediot Aharonot newspaper for positive coverage in exchange for help in reining in a rival publication, the popular, pro-Netanyahu free newspaper Yisrael Hayom, owned by American casino mogul Sheldon Adelson, a close friend of the prime minister at the time.

If this wasn’t bad enough, Netanyahu and his wife Sara are also under investigation in another affair, dubbed “Case 4,000”. Police believe that Netanyahu, when he also served as communications minister between 2015-17, ensured financial benefits amounting to hundreds of millions of euro for Bezeq, Israel’s largest telecommunications company, which is owned by Shaul Elovitch.

Netanyahu has maintained his innocence throughout, repeating allegations of a conspiracy by the left-wing elites, and the media they control, to topple him from power

In return, Elovitch guaranteed favourable coverage for Netanyahu and his wife on the popular news website Walla!, which he also owned at the time. One of Netanyahu’s closest associates, Shlomo Filber, who was handpicked by the prime minister to be director-general of the communications ministry, is testifying in the investigation after signing a state’s witness agreement.

The alleged offences are severe crimes that carry lengthy jail terms. Bribe-taking is an offence punishable by 10 years’ imprisonment, and fraud and breach of trust convictions can result in a three-year jail term.

The police recommendations are not binding on attorney general Avichai Mandelblit, who will ultimately decide whether there are grounds to indict Netanyahu, and for which offences. The process is expected to take many months.

Under Israeli law, Netanyahu is not required to step down, even if indicted, although most commentators believe his position will be untenable if he is brought to trial.

Conspiracy

Netanyahu has maintained his innocence throughout, repeating allegations of a conspiracy by the left-wing elites, and the media they control, to topple him from power. “I feel a deep obligation to continue to lead Israel in a way that will ensure our future,” he said after the police recommended bribery charges.

He faces the prospect of being forced from power and maybe even going to jail when the US administration is now headed by officials considered the dream team by the Israeli right

Opposition lawmakers like to remind the prime minister that when former prime minister Ehud Olmert faced corruption charges, Netanyahu, then leader of the opposition, was the first to demand that he immediately resign. But for now, at least until the attorney general decides, the coalition remains intact.

Even if Netanyahu is forced to resign if indicted on corruption charges, there is little prospect on the horizon for a dramatic shift in the Israeli political landscape. The left remains divided and lacks a charismatic leader. The most popular opposition figure is Yair Lapid, head of the centre-right Yesh Atid party, but it is difficult to see any possibility of Lapid becoming prime minister without bringing the Likud into a coalition.

A number of Likud politicians are expected to vie for leadership of the party if the prime minister quits, including current ministers Yisrael Katz and Gilad Erdan and former minister Gideon Sa’ar, but none can match Netanyahu’s stature.

Protesters clash with Israeli security forces following a demonstration in the southern Gaza Strip in March. Photograph: Said Khatib/AFP/Getty Images
Protesters clash with Israeli security forces following a demonstration in the southern Gaza Strip in March. Photograph: Said Khatib/AFP/Getty Images

Netanyahu’s most serious rival on the right is education minister Naftali Bennett, leader of the far-right Jewish Home. Netanyahu’s constant fear of being outflanked on the right has enabled Bennett to effectively set the agenda on a number of issues, including the asylum seeker question last week.

There remains much speculation that Netanyahu will opt for early elections this year to cash in on his popularity in the polls before the attorney general rules on an indictment.

A few months ago, in the midst of a coalition crisis over the question of military exemptions for the ultra-Orthodox, Netanyahu pushed for a snap election in June but was thwarted by coalition partners who united to block such a scenario. Many believe he is now waiting for the next crisis, genuine or manufactured, to declare early elections this summer.

Dream team

The tragedy for Netanyahu is that he faces the prospect of being forced from power and maybe even going to jail when the US administration is now headed by officials considered the dream team by the Israeli right.

US president Donald Trump has taken Jerusalem off the negotiating table and next month the ribbon-cutting ceremony will take place marking the formal transfer of the US embassy from Tel Aviv to the west Jerusalem neighbourhood of Arnona (although the actual construction of a new embassy building will take many years).

Netanyahu is likely to proclaim the move, which comes shortly after Israel celebrates its 70th Independence Day, as a watershed in Israel’s diplomatic struggle for recognition of the “unification” of Jerusalem following the 1967 Six-Day War, when Israel captured the Arab eastern half of the city from Jordan.

The Palestinians responded by declaring they would boycott any talks brokered by the US, before the Trump administration even formally unveiled details of its Israeli-Palestinian peace plan, dubbed by Trump as “the deal of the century”. This suits Netanyahu just fine, and he was quick to portray the Palestinians as the party rejecting peace talks.

With US ambassador Nikki Haley passionately defending Israel at the United Nations and John Bolton, who allegedly urged Israel to bomb Iranian nuclear facilities, as national security adviser and an ambassador to Israel who used to raise funds for a West Bank settlement, the diplomatic environment is now extremely comfortable for Netanyahu, who has always been identified as politically close to the US Republican right.

Unfortunately, a comfortable diplomatic environment can only last for so long in the Middle East where, inevitably, a vacuum usually ends with a fresh outbreak of violence.

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