Recent polls show that if Israel held elections today, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his Likud Party would likely win again, despite police recommendations that he be indicted on six counts of taking bribes. In fact, he’s now polling better than he was before the recommendation was released: Fewer people think he should resign, and more say they would vote Likud. That improvement reveals something important: To many Israelis, the crimes that police are currently accusing Netanyahu of committing just don’t sound all that serious.
Israelis have long known that Netanyahu and his wife, Sara, are hedonists who prefer other people to pay for their pleasures. Consequently, the revelation that businessmen were plying them with enormous quantities of expensive cigars and champagne wasn’t actually news. And while most Israelis find this conduct repulsive, it’s a price many are willing to pay as long as they feel that Netanyahu is generally doing well by the country, which he is: Even his enemies admit that he has presided over a booming economy, low levels of terrorism and burgeoning relationships with countries around the world.
The real question—the one the polling data hinged on—was what Netanyahu was doing in return for those gifts, and to what degree it harmed the country. So far, the answer seems to be “not much.” Indeed, the quid pro quos detailed in the police report were actually less serious than prior leaks had led the public to expect. While space precludes examining all six allegations in depth, three should suffice to give the flavor.
Let’s start with my personal favorite among the benefits Netanyahu allegedly gave Hollywood producer Arnon Milchan: forming a task force to study Milchan’s proposal for an Israeli-Palestinian-Jordanian free trade zone where one of India’s leading businessmen, Ratan Tata, would produce Tata cars. True, Milchan might have benefited financially had the project actually gone forward (which it didn’t) since he and Tata proposed running the zone in partnership. But anyone familiar with Netanyahu’s foreign policy knows that he has long promoted “economic peace” with the Palestinians as a substitute for the diplomatic peace that currently remains impossible, and that he accords high priority to improving relations with India.
Consequently, it’s fatuous to think he would have to be bribed to consider a proposal that could improve the Palestinian economy while bringing one of India’s largest companies to Israel; it’s the kind of idea that would naturally appeal to him. And even if, as police claim, defense officials disliked the idea, it’s not a crime for prime ministers to have policy disagreements with defense officials. So this charge simply doesn’t hold water.
Another alleged quid pro quo was helping Milchan secure a long-term American visa. But this is the kind of help governments often give leading businessmen, especially if the businessman in question appears to be having visa problems mainly because of his past assistance to the country’s security services. Nor is this something that harms ordinary Israelis in any way. Thus, it’s not something they really care about.
Then there’s the claim that Netanyahu took steps that benefited Milchan in his role as part-owner of Channel 10 television. That’s unarguably true, and it also unarguably cost the Israeli taxpayer money. Channel 10 has serially defaulted on its financial obligations to the government as stipulated in its broadcasting license, yet the government has repeatedly changed the rules to let it stay on the air. But Netanyahu allegedly went even further by helping Milchan find a buyer for his shares when he sought to reduce his stake in this financial sinkhole, and that is the focus of the police recommendation.
Yet it’s far from obvious that Netanyahu’s conduct in this case was motivated by bribery. First, governments have been bending the rules in order to save Channel 10 since before Netanyahu took office and before Milchan acquired his stake. This looks a lot like just one more rule-bending rescue effort: The man who bought Milchan’s shares didn’t just put money in Milchan’s pocket; he also bought shares from other people to acquire a controlling stake in the cash-strapped channel, then injected desperately needed capital into it, thereby saving it from financial collapse.
Second, Netanyahu had previously threatened more than once to rescind Channel 10’s license due to its serial defaults and sell the frequency to new owners who might honor their financial commitments. Each time, however, he backed down after the entire media—joined by the entire opposition—accused him of seeking to destroy freedom of the press by shutting down a media outlet openly critical of him. A similar threat and a similar media outcry preceded the Milchan buyout. So did Netanyahu really save Channel 10 to help his good friend Milchan, or was he simply cowed into doing so, for the umpteenth time, by a media campaign falsely claiming that letting a bankrupt channel fold would be “anti-democratic”?
It’s important to note that two cases still under investigation seem much more serious than the six on which police have so far recommended charges. One involves corruption in the purchase of naval vessels. The other involves multimillion-dollar benefits to Israel’s landline telephone monopoly, Bezeq, including killing a reform that would have significantly reduced landline rates for all Israelis in exchange for favorable coverage of Netanyahu by an Internet news site Bezeq owns. As of this writing, Netanyahu isn’t officially a suspect in either case, but at least in the Bezeq case, he seems almost certain to become one. And should police recommend charging him in either of these, public opinion would likely turn far more sharply against him.
Still, the recommendations police have released so far don’t tell the public anything it didn’t already know: Netanyahu likes living the high life at other people’s expense. Unless police produce evidence that such luxuries were actually coming at the country’s expense, many Netanyahu supporters will continue believing his outstanding performance as prime minister outweighs his shoddy personal conduct.
Evelyn Gordon is a journalist and commentator living in Israel.