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Indicted Netanyahu Channels Trump in Defiance

Israel's longest serving prime minister is down, but far from being out.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu I By Alexandros Michailidis /Shutterstock

Israel’s long running political soap opera took another turn Thursday, as caretaker prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu was indicted on a potpourri of corruption charges, including bribery, fraud, and breach of trust.

According to an indictment prepared by Israel’s attorney general, as prime minister, Netanyahu received hundreds of thousands of dollars in gifts from supporters, most prominently the Hollywood producer Arnon Milchen. It is also alleged that Netanyahu offered to trade favors with a newspaper publisher, and used his influence to arrange benefits totaling one quarter of a billion dollars to a telecom magnate in exchange for favorable coverage on a popular internet news site.

Netanyahu’s indictment marks the first time in Israel’s history that a sitting prime minister has been faced with the prospect of a criminal trial.

Incidentally, his pending indictment was announced soon after his main political rival, former chief of staff of the Israeli Defense Forces and Blue and White party leader Benny Gantz, gave up the ghost and returned the mandate to form a government to the president. Ganz’s failure to cobble together a majority in the 120-member Knesset (Parliament) followed Netanyahu’s own failure to form a government—an outcome unprecedented in Israel’s tumultuous political history. The stage is now set for yet another round of elections, the third in a year, in mid-2020.

Israel is no stranger to political and criminal corruption in its highest echelons. It has suffered a constant stream of legal and ethical shenanigans by top leaders over the last half century. Yitzhak Rabin was forced to resign in 1976 when news of his wife’s illegal bank account in the U.S. was revealed. President Ezer Weitzman resigned in July 2000 in the wake of substantiated allegations of corruption. His successor, Moshe Katsav, was imprisoned for rape and other crimes in 2011.

The path of Netanyahu’s own victory was set when Prime Minister Ehud Olmert resigned in 2008 in the wake of bribery and corruption charges for which he served time in prison.

After losing the support of his party, Olmert announced:

I will step aside properly in an honorable and responsible way, and afterwards I will prove my innocence. I want to make it clear—I am proud to be a citizen of a country where the prime minister can be investigated like a regular citizen. It is the duty of the police to investigate, and the duty of the prosecution to instruct the police. The prime minister is not above the law.

Netanyahu was the prime political beneficiary of Olmert’s departure, which he heartily endorsed.

“A prime minister neck deep in investigations has no moral or public mandate to make fateful decisions for the State of Israel,” he said. “There is a fear, I must say, and it is real and not unfounded, that he will make his decisions based on his personal interest for political survival, not on the national interest.”

For himself, Netanyahu has chosen another path. He will not rest on his considerable political laurels and ride quietly into the political sunset. He and his not inconsiderable supporters have chosen instead to fight efforts to unseat him, ensuring that Israel’s almost perfect political storm will go from bad to worse in 2020.

The indictment marks only the beginning of the probable end of Netanyahu’s tenure as Israel’s top leader. The longest serving prime minister in Israeli history has a number of legal and parliamentary maneuvers that at best will offer him absolution and immunity for his alleged crimes and pave the way for yet another candidacy as leader of the ruling Likud Party.

At worst, Netanyahu can remain in the chair as caretaker and continue to game the system until at least mid-2020. That’s when yet another round of national elections will attempt to break a parliamentary logjam that has kept Israel without an agreed-upon government since April 2019.  

A Netanyahu victory at the polls next year, however improbable, will not end the saga. There is no shortage of petitioners who will ask the High Court to rule on the proposition that a prime minister who has the status of a defendant cannot form a government.

Taking a page out of Trump‘s impeachment playbook, Netanyahu has come out fighting, attacking the press, denying any wrongdoing, and condemning the conclusions reached by Israel’s police and prosecutors as a “witch hunt.”

In a nationally televised speech last night, he described the decision to indict as an “attempted coup”—the centerpiece of an aggressive, no-holds-barred strategy to undermine public support not only for the specific charges but also the institutions involved in bringing evidence before the public. 

“The process is intended to topple an incumbent prime minister from the right,” Netanyahu declared. “It was designed to bring me down.” 

From an American standpoint, the chaos in Israel’s parliamentary, judicial, and political systems all but certainly closes the door on the already faltering American effort to arrange a “deal of the century” between Netanyahu and the PLO’s embattled chairman Mahmoud Abbas, who has not faced the Palestinian electorate since 2006.  

Conventional wisdom also suggests that an Israel consumed by its own political problems will be constrained from aggressively pursuing its Arab and Iranian enemies—whether along its northern or southern borders or in the “near abroad” in Iran and Iraq. The violent history of the region, however, is not lacking for counter examples. Menachem Begin invaded Lebanon in 1982 with a slim parliamentary majority and Netanyahu himself has just conducted a calibrated assault on Gaza.

Some critics accuse Israel of being “the 51st state.” By channeling Washington’s vocabulary of partisanship, division, and polemics, Israel may have made that truer than they imagine.

Geoffrey Aronson is chairman and co-founder of The Mortons Group, and a non-resident scholar at the Middle East Institute.

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