Israel’s police are recommending the indictment of the prime minister. But there’s less to the charges of corruption than his critics would have you believe. Until proven otherwise, he’s still the indispensable man of Israeli politics.
On Thursday, Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu did what he does best. He blocked a vote slated to come up in a committee next week on the annexation of certain West Bank settlements. In doing so, he deftly fended off a challenge from his right-wing coalition partners. At the same time, he also protected Israel from an unnecessary quarrel with a Trump administration that is tilting heavily towards the Jewish state, but would have had to react negatively to anything that smacked of annexation.
Nobody but Netanyahu is as capable of balancing Israel’s diplomatic imperatives with its domestic political dynamic. His mix of foreign policy and security gravitas, coupled with keen political instincts, has made the Likud leader a unique figure in the country’s political landscape. Polls consistently show him as the one person seen as having the qualifications to lead by most Israelis. That is especially true when compared to his would-be replacements, such as Yesh Atid’s Yair Lapid or the Zionist Union/Labor’s Avi Gabbay.
Questions are churning as to whether Netanyahu’s long stay at the summit of Israeli politics may soon be at an end. Israeli media outlets are saying that the heads of Israel’s police force are unanimous in recommending that he be indicted on corruption charges. While the final decision whether or not to press charges will be made by the nation’s attorney general, the issue remains troubling—and doesn’t seem to be going away.
In response, Netanyahu has pushed back hard against the police. That has prompted comparisons to President Donald Trump and his defenders, who have been assailing what they think is the unfairness of special counsel Robert Mueller’s probe of possible collusion charges with Russia.
The comparison between Trump and Netanyahu is logical in the limited sense that both men are reviled by the media establishments and liberal elites in their respective countries. But the analogy between Trump and Netanyahu, which is strengthened by the president’s closeness to Israel, only goes so far. The two may be alike in their propensity for making enemies but otherwise couldn’t be more different.
Despite their policy differences and clear personal antagonism, the American leader Netanyahu most resembles is Barack Obama. Both are arrogant policy wonks who like to assert control over everything. They are also political virtuosos who drive their opponents off the deep end. While Obama’s belief that he had to “save Israel from itself” and appease Iran would have ruined relations with any Israeli prime minister, the similarities between the two men exacerbated an already fractious situation.
American pundits routinely criticize Netanyahu as someone who lacks the vision and/or courage to make peace with the Palestinians. Yet it’s their vision that’s cloudy. The prime minister understands something grasped by most Israelis but which eludes many foreign observers, including, at times, Trump: The Palestinians aren’t particularly interested in peace. Sometimes, the best moves are the ones you don’t make, which is why Netanyahu’s refusal to cede further territory to a Palestinian Authority that won’t recognize the legitimacy of a Jewish state—no matter where its borders are drawn—is widely supported by most Israelis. Netanyahu’s command of economics is also practically unique among Israeli premiers, including its current crop of politicians.
But if, like his predecessor Ehud Olmert, Netanyahu winds up in court fighting for his reputation and freedom, none of that may matter. An indictment will cripple him, and make it likely that the man who has been prime minister for the last nine years (in addition to the three years of his first term in the 1990s) won’t stay in office for long.
The comparisons with Olmert, who was convicted of serial corruption dating back to his years as mayor of Jerusalem, are specious. Two main charges are lobbied against Netanyahu, but despite the ominous sounding names given them by the police, neither stands up to scrutiny.
Case 1000 alleges that the Netanyahus took gifts of champagne and cigars from wealthy friends worth hundreds of thousands of shekels. But while that prompts unfavorable comparisons to ascetic Israeli founding fathers like David Ben-Gurion and Menachem Begin, there is no indication that any of their benefactors got anything in return. If the bribe wasn’t part of a quid pro quo, then it isn’t a bribe.
Case 2000 is even fishier. It concerns taped conversations between Netanyahu and Yediot Ahronot newspaper publisher Arnon Mozes. Netanyahu asked that Mozes scale back criticism in his paper, and in return said he would do something to reduce the circulation of Israel Hayom, the free daily that had overtaken Yediot as the country’s most widely read newspaper. Although Israel Hayom was owned by Netanyahu ally (and JNS donor) Sheldon Adelson, considering that Netanyahu had no ability to make good on that promise, the conversation was ludicrous. Nor is it reasonable to assert that it was illegal.
Netanyahu does stand guilty of having a wife with a famous temper, which was exposed by a recent tape of a tantrum she had while criticizing a subordinate. His son Yair’s boorish behavior was also taped and put on the record for the Israeli public. The entire family seems to have a sense of entitlement bred by years in power that rightly offends many Israelis.
But both the attempt to prosecute him on such flimsy charges and the intrusive scrutiny of his family says nothing about his fitness for office. The American principle of term limits for presidents is a tradition Israel might consider. But the reason why Netanyahu, despite him not being particularly lovable, remains in power is that there really is no good alternative.
That’s why those counting down the days until he’s evicted from office may be mistaken. Like it or not, Netanyahu’s clever political balancing act—and his courage in saying no to bad deals for his country—are still needed. The day will come when Israel’s people will have had enough of him, but the assumption that this day is near may be dead wrong.
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.